Government & Politics

Jeff Colyer becomes governor of Kansas with goal of improved ‘environment’ in Capitol

Colyer sworn in as 47th governor of Kansas

Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County surgeon, is sworn in as the 47th Governor of Kansas in a ceremony in the Topeka statehouse Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.
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Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County surgeon, is sworn in as the 47th Governor of Kansas in a ceremony in the Topeka statehouse Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.

It took the Overland Park plastic surgeon far longer than he had hoped, but Wednesday afternoon, Jeff Colyer finally found himself in charge.

Jeffrey William Colyer became the 47th governor of Kansas on Wednesday, hailing a new day in the state.

He committed to protecting life — a likely indication that he will continue former Gov. Sam Brownback’s anti-abortion stances — and vowed to have a transparent and accountable government.

“I will set a tone and insist on an environment of openness, honesty and respect,” Colyer said.

Colyer, 57, took the oath shortly after 3 p.m. in the Kansas Capitol rotunda, surrounded by hundreds who gathered to watch. Spectators lined the railing on the second and third floors.

The ceremony ended his seven years as Brownback’s lieutenant governor — and six months of waiting for Brownback to win U.S. Senate confirmation for a Trump administration job.

Yet Colyer faces immense challenges after the pomp and circumstance fades.

He must mend strained relationships with lawmakers left by his predecessor and work with them to create a constitutional school funding system. The new system will likely affect how much money every public school in the state receives.

And he must do that while campaigning to keep his job. Colyer will face a Republican primary in August, and several challengers say he’s too much like Brownback.

If Colyer can’t heal past tensions with lawmakers, the chances of gridlock and conflict increase as the Legislature heads toward an April 30 deadline to respond to a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court that schools are inadequately funded.

Brownback earlier this year incurred the wrath of fellow Republicans by proposing a massive increase in school spending without laying out a clear plan to pay for it. Colyer hasn’t said how he wants to solve the problem — whether he will back Brownback’s earlier plan for a $600 million boost over five years — or provide his own solution.

Wednesday, he promised a satisfactory resolution.

“I will not be responsible for shutting down the Kansas schools,” he said. “This is not Washington.”

Speaking with reporters after the speech, he said the $600 million proposal was “one that I could handle, depending on where the budget is.”

Initial signs suggest Colyer may already be thawing relationships with lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he was pleased by Colyer’s comments about Kansas not being Washington, D.C.

“That was one of the problems with the former governor, Gov. Brownback,” Hensley said. “He brought Washington-style politics to Kansas. And I’m hoping we can avoid that into the future.”

Since President Donald Trump nominated Brownback in July to become an ambassador until his confirmation last week, Colyer has stayed quiet about his own policy preferences, instead deferring to Brownback.

Colyer remained patient as he waited to become governor, even as Brownback’s nomination moved slowly through the U.S. Senate. During that time, Brownback allowed Colyer to take on more power than a traditional lieutenant governor.

Colyer chose the new secretary of the Department for Children and Families and was allowed to lead development of the governor’s budget plan, creating a controversy over who was actually leading the state.

Again and again he has promised a new tone while offering few specifics.

“I think there’s a consensus from folks that we want to see more money in schools, but we want to see outcomes,” Colyer said last week.

Colyer is not expected to immediately name a lieutenant governor. For the moment, that means Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, is next in line for the office.

Wagle said after the ceremony that she expected Colyer to share policy goals when he speaks to the Legislature next week.

“It was an encouraging, historical address,” Wagle said of his speech Wednesday. “That’s what you do at an inaugural ceremony.”

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer visited Silver Lake Junior-Senior High School Wednesday, the same day Gov. Sam Brownback was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said he expects some time to pass as Colyer tries to formulate what he’s going to do.

“I’m not sure coming out of the gate if we’ll see a whole bunch of policy real quick, or whether we’ll see something else,” Hawkins said. “The one thing that I want to see is, I want to see leadership.”

Hawkins said he’s excited about Colyer becoming governor.

“He’s probably going to be a communicator. He’ll probably be a little bit more friendly, hopefully, to the Legislature and listen to the Legislature, because I think that’s going to be important going forward, which is something that Gov. Brownback wasn’t quite as good at. I don’t think he really cared what we thought most of the time.”

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said almost every problem lawmakers face is related to damage inflicted by Brownback’s signature tax cuts, which the Legislature largely rolled back last year.

Wolfe Moore said she hopes Colyer will listen more to the Legislature than Brownback.

“Obviously, it would be better if the governor were more in tune with not only the Legislature, but the general public,” Wolfe Moore said.

President Donald Trump named Gov. Sam Brownback as the next ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, effectively making Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer the governor in waiting.

At the very least, Colyer needs to court Republican primary voters. A handful of candidates want to deny him the GOP nomination for governor, including two statewide officeholders: Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer.

Several candidates are intent on painting the Colyer administration as a continuation of Brownback’s.

“Colyer has already taken credit for a budget that doesn’t balance. It’s more of the same — withdrawals from the bank of KDOT, skipped KPERS payments, cuts to colleges, no rainy day fund, and an unconstitutional school finance plan,” Wichita businessman Wink Hartman said on Facebook.

Colyer is the second Kansas lieutenant governor in recent years elevated to governor. Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson became governor after Gov. Kathleen Sebelius resigned in 2009 to take a position in President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Colyer and his wife, Ruth, have three daughters, Alexandra, Serena and Dominique, according to the governor’s website.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw