To say that Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer’s first substantive speech to the Legislature was a bust would be going too far.
But not by much.
Colyer faces the daunting task of assuming office after the Legislature has already been in session for a month. Given that, the state’s new-look chief executive has little time to dance around the big issues, especially the state’s ongoing school finance crisis. He has to be realistic and cut to the quick when it comes to solutions.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Colyer laid out an illogical and unworkable path forward. In his first serious policy address, he proposed settling the state’s school funding issue once and for all, boosting support for highways and spending more to safeguard Kansas’ most vulnerable kids — apparently without raising taxes.
Simply put, that’s impossible, and it does nothing to pave the way for lawmakers struggling to craft a solution to the state Supreme Court’s order to adequately fund education.
Colyer said all this while challenging lawmakers to place long-term interests ahead of short-term political gain. But in taking a tax increase off the table, Colyer has done just the opposite. As a candidate for governor himself, he’s focused on the November election — or the crowded August primary — instead of aiming at what every in-the-know Kansan wants, and that’s an end to those court fights over education.
In fact, Colyer reserved the strongest language of his little-more-than-30-minute address to a joint session of the Legislature for decrying those 50 years of litigation. He ticked off the names of the last 10 governors — five Republicans, five Democrats — and noted that all had faced the specter of lawsuits “overshadowing education.”
“This,” Colyer intoned, “must end now.”
As he addressed what he called the “elephant in the room,” Colyer missed a prime opportunity to seize the opening that his predecessor, the much-maligned Gov. Sam Brownback, had provided him. In his State of the State address last month, Brownback declared the need to spend $600 million more on public schools to satisfy the courts. In doing so, Brownback backed off his long-standing feud with the court’s judges and fell in with the proposition that big bucks are needed, and needed soon, to satisfy the court.
But Colyer declined to endorse that dollar figure, even though some leaders of both parties already have, or acknowledge the need for higher taxes. That will only make the road ahead more arduous.
Colyer also endorsed a short-sighted proposal requiring adults to work to receive Medicaid assistance. He said such a requirement will encourage “better health outcomes,” but there’s little evidence to support such a ridiculous claim, as most doctors will attest. And he said nothing about expanding Medicaid, a move that’s long overdue.
The new governor played to the GOP primary base by calling for a constitutional amendment on abortion to ensure that state courts don’t get away with striking down restrictions that federal courts approve. With the Legislature facing such a momentous session, the injection of abortion politics wasn’t helpful.
On the positive side, Colyer’s repeated calls for bipartisanship and a smoother working relationship with the Legislature were welcome after the contentious Brownback years. He also deserves credit for his pledges to end a culture of sexual harassment in the statehouse and increase transparency by making it easier for citizens to obtain public records.
But ultimately, Colyer’s proposition that Kansas can advance without the money to do so amounts to a fantastical fairy tale. Once again, lawmakers will have to seize the day and do the hard work.