Government & Politics

Is Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer of Johnson County preparing to step in for Sam Brownback?

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer has been quietly reaching out to lawmakers ahead of the legislative session, a move that could signal he plans to be governor.

Lawmakers say Colyer is doing more outreach than in previous years. Colyer described himself as the state’s chief operating officer and said his job is to make sure the goals of the chief executive officer, Gov. Sam Brownback, get accomplished. Talking to lawmakers is part of that, he said.

Colyer, a plastic surgeon from Johnson County, could get a promotion if Brownback is tapped to serve in President-elect Trump’s administration. He acknowledged that possibility.

“When you sign up for this job, you’ve signed up for that situation,” Colyer said. “It’s happened before and it’ll happen again in the future. Will it happen to me? I’m going to do my job now.”

It happened eight years ago when President Obama selected Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services. The lieutenant governor, Mark Parkinson, became governor in the midst of the recession with the state in fiscal crisis. Parkinson enacted a sales tax increase and made massive spending cuts to balance the budget.

Today, the state faces a projected $930 million shortfall in the next 18 months. Once again, a two-term governor is rumored to be under consideration for a job in the incoming presidential administration.

Brownback will not say whether he has discussed positions with Trump’s transition team. Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, has repeatedly said jobs in the Trump administration are available to Brownback – if he wants one.

“There’s so much speculation,” Colyer said. “I’ve learned in my job, as a unique lieutenant governor in that unique space, you’ve got to keep your head together. And when everybody’s speculating on all sorts of sides, you just keep your head together, do your job.”

‘He’s reached out’

Relations between the governor’s office and lawmakers have become increasingly strained in the past two years as the state has grappled with budget gaps. Many Republican incumbents sought to distance themselves from the governor during the recent election, and moderate challengers succeeded in ousting conservative incumbents by running on an anti-Brownback message.

Colyer appears to be trying to repair those relationships ahead of the session.

“He’s reached out to me a few times,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, who will become speaker of the House when the session starts in January. “I think he does want to be more involved.” 

Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, a moderate, said he received a text message from Colyer the day he won the race for majority leader in the Kansas House.

“He texted me and asked me if I wanted to go to the Chiefs game with him,” Hineman said. He initially agreed to go to last Thursday’s game against the Oakland Raiders but said he had to cancel after coming down with a cold.

“I think it is an effort to establish better relationships with the Legislature, and I really welcome that,” Hineman said. “I’m glad that he’s doing that.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, an outspoken moderate, said she met with Colyer after the election to discuss ways the governor’s office could do a better job of reaching out to lawmakers.

“There seemed to be a very clear desire to improve communications and to improve relationships between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” she said.

Clayton said Colyer was interested to “find out what moderates cared about and what moderates wanted,” and he was “also curious to hear what we had been hearing from the electorate on the campaign trail.”

“I believe that he was sincere in his interest,” she added.

‘Could start anew’

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said he spoke with a lawmaker who was surprised to get a phone call from Colyer the day after the election.

He said Colyer’s outreach efforts could mean one of two things: that Brownback plans to leave soon and Colyer is trying to build relationships ahead of assuming office, or that Colyer plans to run for governor in two years.

“And now is the time to start figuring out what’s the image that Colyer’s going to have,” Beatty said.

Beatty said he puts the chances of Brownback leaving at 50-50. If Colyer does assume the governorship in 2017, Beatty said, he may stand a better chance at striking a compromise with the Legislature than Brownback does.

“Brownback’s relationships may be irreparably harmed, but Colyer could start anew,” Beatty said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said Monday that lawmakers are concerned Brownback is “looking for a ticket to D.C.” and won’t put forward a serious budget proposal.

Later in the day, Brownback posted a photo on Twitter of him and his staff working on the budget, promising a balanced budget in January. Colyer sat next to the governor in the photo.

Colyer said during an interview earlier this month that Brownback is committed to working with the Legislature. He voiced optimism that the competing wings of the Republican Party will coalesce and pass a consensus solution to the state’s budget problems.

“For starters, they know these are very difficult decisions. … We want them to see we can get there as partners in those decisions,” Colyer said when asked about his conversations with lawmakers.

Colyer wouldn’t share any details of the budget fixes Brownback is weighing, but he reiterated the administration’s aversion to raising taxes.

“There’s a recession going on in the Midwest, and people are hurting,” he said. “And we need to make sure that we do all that we can to ensure that essential services are provided and that we’re not taking more money out of people’s pockets.”

Federal investigation

Colyer has reached out to Democrats as well. He sent newly elected House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a birthday card last week.

Ward said he’s known Colyer for 10 years and this is the first time he’s ever gotten a birthday card from him. He called Colyer’s outreach a positive sign but said the question remains whether he’ll be willing to compromise if he lands in the governor’s office.

“It’s clearly more than our current governor has done in terms of outreach to people who have been opponents of his, so that’s a good sign,” Ward said. “But when it really matters, when the rubber meets the road, how willing is he to negotiate and compromise on the really critical issues that face our state? And that’s when the real telling point will be.”

Colyer was present on the House and Senate floor for key votes on school finance and the budget last session. He was much less visible the previous year when he was the subject of a federal investigation.

Colyer made a series of $500,000 loans to Brownback’s 2014 re-election campaign, which drew scrutiny because of their quick repayment. The U.S. attorney’s office subpoenaed the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission in December 2014 for information on the loans as part of a federal grand jury investigation.

Colyer would not discuss the loans or the investigation until he announced in June 2015 that he had been informed by his attorneys that the investigation had concluded and that no charges would be filed. The U.S. attorney’s office confirmed that within an hour of the announcement.

“It was all speculation,” Colyer said when asked about the investigation. “That’s a period of history that’s over.”

Questions about the investigations could continue to plague Colyer if he runs for governor, Beatty said. If Colyer faces a Trump-style candidate in the Republican primary, “that will be used like a hammer,” he said.

KanCare work

Colyer is likely to play a major role this session regardless of whether Brownback joins the Trump administration. The state is renegotiating contracts for KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid system. Colyer was one of the main architects of the KanCare program and continues to play a lead role in updating the program.

The goal of the new contract is to get better outcomes for patients and ensure value for taxpayers, Colyer said.

“How do we put that together in a system that is run that is really in the best interest of everybody?” Colyer said “We want to have choice. We want to make sure that we get real accountability. And we want to share savings with the providers and everybody in the system.”

Ward, who sits on the KanCare oversight committee, said the program has succeeded in saving the state money but has failed to deliver services to patients and ensure timely payments to doctors.

Brownback has also tasked Colyer with heading up a working group aimed at improving access to health care in rural Kansas, another issue that promises to be a focal point this session.

“When he (Brownback) first asked me to join up, he said, ‘I want you to be the busiest lieutenant governor in the history of the state,’ ” Colyer said. “He also didn’t tell me that the mortality rate for lieutenant governors is fairly high. I’m about six months away from being the longest-serving lieutenant governor in the history of the state.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3