Governor-in-waiting Jeff Colyer is facing a crisis and he hasn’t even taken the oath yet as Kansas’ next governor.
Colyer and the Legislature will have to find hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for a court-ordered school funding increase as voters in the cash-strapped state are still digesting a new tax increase.
Failing that, Colyer will face a statewide shutdown of schools one month before Republican primary voters decide whether to make him their candidate for governor.
“I wouldn’t want to be Jeff Colyer,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and ranking minority member of the Senate budget committee.
The Johnson County plastic surgeon is set to take the reins of Kansas state government if the U.S. Senate, as expected, confirms Gov. Sam Brownback for an ambassadorship in the Trump administration.
Brownback’s confirmation hearing last week came two days after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school finance formula is unconstitutional. Brownback is still sitting at the governor’s desk for now, but it’s Colyer who will be in the hot seat for next year’s legislative session.
Kansas lawmakers this year increased school funding by more than $290 million. Overriding a Brownback veto, they passed a $1 billion tax increase over two years to pay for the funding increase and to close a massive budget hole.
But the court ruled that the Legislature had come up short. Lawmakers must either pass another tax increase or cut other parts of the budget to pump up education funding enough to satisfy the court.
A tax increase could doom Colyer in the Republican primary for governor in a race that will pit him against Secretary of State Kris Kobach and other conservatives. But if the state does nothing, the court will void the funding law and effectively trigger a statewide school shutdown.
“He’s between a rock and a hard place here. ... Just for political survival, he can’t let that happen on his watch,” Kelly said about the possibility of a shutdown.
However, a handful of Republican lawmakers want Colyer to defy the court and risk a shutdown.
“I hope that he gives us the leadership we need to tell the court to stuff it,” said Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican who is running for Congress in the 2nd District.
The court did not give lawmakers a specific dollar figure to aim for, but it contrasted the law passed in June with estimates from the state Board of Education and attorneys for the school districts that sued the state.
“It’s exactly $600 million short,” said John Robb, an attorney for the Kansas City, Kan., school district and three other plaintiff districts.
Coming up with that money could plunge the state back into a budget hole. Even after this year’s tax increase, Kansas is projected to have only about $245 million in its cash reserves by the end of June 2019, less than half of what Robb says is needed for schools.
Senate Republican leaders put out a statement the day of the ruling saying that another tax increase is not going to happen.
“If they follow through with that statement, they will see a school shutdown 34 days before the primary next August,” Robb predicted. The state must submit its solution to the court by the end of April, and the court will decide whether it passes muster by the end of June.
Colyer wouldn’t directly answer questions from reporters last week about a possible tax increase.
“These lawsuits have been going on for 45, 50 years. Nine different governors have been (in office during that time). I’m frustrated, too, just like everybody else,” Colyer said. “But we want good schools and we need to focus on outcomes on this and how do we get the best results for our kids. That’s what we’ll focus on.”
Colyer said he wasn’t going to talk about “a bunch of policy” when pressed on the matter. He also avoided commenting on the possibility of cuts to other parts of the budget.
There is no magic bullet, Colyer said.
“But we are going to work on it, and we are going to work with legislators, and teachers,” he said. “I’ve been out over the last couple days talking to teachers, talking to experts, talking to parents about it, and I think the approach is, how do we do this and how are we going to deal with it? There’s a lot of interpretation going on, and that’ll happen until everybody gets their mind around it.”
Lawmakers, who were frustrated last session by Brownback’s reticence to participate in a budget fix, are hoping that Colyer will provide more guidance.
“It would be nice to see him engage and I think the Legislature is looking for some leadership it’s been lacking,” said Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican and member of the House budget committee.
Davis said that she doesn’t think the Legislature will have “the political gumption to do another major tax increase.” Instead, the money will have to come from other areas of the budget, such as transportation and public health, that already have been through a series of cuts in recent years.
“I mean, that is just the reality of this issue,” Davis said. “This isn’t monopoly money. It actually has to come from somewhere. So it’s either coming from Kansas taxpayers, or we’re going to have to take more money from other core functions of government. And those are already barely scraping by.”
Whatever path Colyer chooses will likely anger some segment of Republican voters ahead of the crowded Republican primary. On top of that, Colyer will lack the clout with Legislature that an elected governor would have, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
“It’s not beginner’s level governing. This is a very challenging situation for any governor to be in,” Miller said.
“For Colyer, it’s difficult because he doesn’t necessarily have all the stature that a governor might normally have. He could be in office a very short period of time. He already has major primary challengers. What’s the incentive for legislators to fear and respect him?”
Several of Colyer’s competitors for the Republican nomination bashed the court in their responses to the ruling.
Wichita businessman Wink Hartman blasted the decision by “unelected judges.” Kobach, a frequent critic of the court, said the ruling “distorts and misinterprets the words of the Kansas Constitution.”
Colyer, on the other hand, has stayed away from attacking the court. Kelly said Colyer’s measured tone is a sign that he’ll try to be part of a solution, which is a good sign for schools and a smart strategy for the general election.
“If he goes all right-wingy on us and tries to go as far right as Kobach ... he’ll get creamed in the general,” Kelly said.
However, she said Colyer probably will have to show some resistance to raising taxes to appeal to GOP primary voters.
“He needs to be seen as kicking his feet, being dragged into the solution,” Kelly said. “... But at the end of the day he has to be part of the solution or he has no chance of getting through a general election.”
All of the candidates are doing political calculus in their responses to the ruling, but only Colyer will be governor when it comes time for the state to submit a proposed solution to the court, said Mark Desetti, the legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association.
During his seven years as lieutenant governor, Colyer, a surgeon, has largely focused on health policy. Education is a largely unexplored issue for him, and education advocates are unsure exactly how he’ll proceed, Desetti said.
“This is going to be a big challenge for Colyer,” he said. “He’s got to decide what he wants his legacy to be. ... I think we’ve got a lot to learn about Colyer yet.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said the ruling gives Colyer a huge opportunity to distinguish himself from the other candidates and demonstrate leadership if he’s able to help craft a solution.
“Confronting the courts is most likely his worst option. ... That’s not going to demonstrate as much leadership as actually solving the problem,” Beatty said. “He declared he was running for governor knowing these were the things that he was going to have to deal with and in his mind, he can fix them.”
Beatty said Colyer could have his biggest impact if he laid out a vision for addressing the ruling the moment he’s sworn into the office — assuming Brownback’s confirmation goes smoothly.
“He needs to demonstrate leadership and start the process of problem-solving and the best way to do that is to make a clear break from Brownback ... and that’s his challenge,” Beatty said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”