Jeff Colyer can’t be another Sam Brownback.
Kansas’ governor-in-waiting surely knows that. After all, the signs are everywhere that a governorship, no matter how brief, in the mold of Brownback’s misguided seven years simply won’t cut it.
Those signs include poll numbers that ranked Brownback as the second-least popular governor in the nation with a job approval rating last summer at a woeful 25 percent and 66 percent disapproval. Only New Jersey’s head-in-the-sand former Gov. Chris Christie outdid him.
Then there was the 2016 election that saw Kansas voters welcome to the statehouse a slew of Democrats and moderate Republicans who promptly opted to reverse the storied Brownback tax cuts that placed Kansas on the brink of financial ruin. In 2015, Brownback was famously booed at a KU-Wichita State basketball game.
It’s clearly time for a new direction. To his credit, Colyer already is signaling the need for a different tone, and he’s declared that he’s willing to listen to his state.
“You’ll just see a lot of energy and a little different approach,” Colyer said this week.
Make no mistake: Colyer is in a heckuva fix. As lieutenant governor, Colyer served almost two, four-year terms without a single public disagreement with his mentor. Did anyone hear the lieutenant governor raise one word of objection as Brownback signed those budget-busting tax cuts of 2012 and 2013? Did Colyer raise a word in protest as basic state services slid into disrepair?
So Colyer owns the state he’s inherited, and what a mess it’s in. As state Sen. Barbara Bollier so aptly put it the other day: “We’re in real trouble. So he needs to be ready to hold up a really big ship that’s sinking.”
Colyer self-identified again recently as the most conservative of Republicans who once worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But he still has an opportunity to separate himself from Brownback in a constructive way that will help his state right itself.
He does that, first, by finding a path forward on school finance. The state Supreme Court, of course, has ordered lawmakers to pony up hundreds of millions more for schools. Many legislators already are balking after the tax increases of 2017. But Brownback did Colyer a huge favor by calling for a $600 million increase in school funding over five years in his State of the State message. In a cowardly oversight, Brownback did not indicate where that money should come from.
Still, he at least began to clear the way for another major boost in school funding. Colyer has already said he won’t support a tax increase to pay for it, and that was a mistake, given the dearth of reasonable options for lawmakers. Hopefully, he was serious that his “new tone” means he’d still be willing to compromise where Brownback wouldn’t and maintain a level of flexibility that will allow for a solution.
Given the state’s many needs that go well beyond its public schools, Colyer as a candidate for governor this year can win the appreciation — and even the votes — of Kansans if he focuses on solving problems and moving the state forward. He should remember that Reagan, the godfather of the modern conservative movement, raised taxes not just once, but several times and still won a resounding re-election in 1984.
Kansas is hungry for a fresh direction. What an opportunity this is — if Colyer will only seize it.