In the next few months, Jeff Colyer will become the governor of Kansas when Sam Brownback departs to take a job with the Trump administration.
The current lieutenant governor will inherit a state in better shape than it was eight years ago — or even eight months ago.
In 2009, Kansas faced the same economic pressures as the rest of the nation in the middle of the Great Recession. Unemployment jumped. State budget deficits surged.
Over the next four years, Brownback — with Colyer’s full support — enacted a series of tax cuts and budget changes that worsened the problem dramatically. The state’s credit rating was downgraded, its schools hauled into court again, its road program underfunded.
The slump angered so many Kansans, including Republicans, that voters elected a slate of centrist Republicans and Democrats in 2016 who promised to fix the shortfalls.
Their hard work means Colyer won’t face a dramatic, urgent budget crisis when he takes the oath. Problems remain — the state budget still relies too heavily on accounting tricks and one-time transfers — but the balance sheet should be relatively clean when the page is turned.
That will change if the state Supreme Court requires a major increase in spending for the state’s schools. We’ve suggested the court pause for a year or two to see if some additional funding and a new formula will improve education, but if the court disagrees and requires additional funding, the Legislature will face tough choices next year.
Governor-to-be Colyer should undertake a thorough study of alternatives now. If he rules out substantial tax hikes, as is likely, he’ll need to tell Kansans where he’ll cut spending to make the math work.
Once the budget, school spending and tax issues are understood, Colyer may seek a way to step out of Brownback’s shadow. And we’ve got just the place to look: expanding Medicaid in Kansas.
Colyer has opposed that option in the past. But he clearly has an interest in health issues — he’s a physician. He surely knows expanding Medicaid would help rural hospitals and tens of thousands of Kansans who make too much for traditional Medicaid but not enough for Obamacare subsidies.
The Legislature knows those facts — last session, it almost expanded Medicaid over Brownback’s veto. Colyer could reach out to see if there’s a compromise modeled on other states that expanded Medicaid under a public-private system.
Expanding Medicaid would be smart policy and smart politics. Colyer may run for governor in 2018. If he seeks the job as a Brownback clone, he’ll face resistance from the state’s voters.
Besides, there’s already a Brownback wannabe in the race: Kris Kobach. Kobach is Brownback, with a pinch of xenophobia and voter suppression tossed in.
We think Kansans will be looking for something else next year. A solid budget, good schools and a healthier Kansas are good places for Jeff Colyer to start.