Gov. Jeff Colyer is not Sam Brownback 2.0, and Kansas is better for it

Compared to his predecessor, Kansas’ new governor is more approachable, more open-minded and a big change from the last seven years.
Compared to his predecessor, Kansas’ new governor is more approachable, more open-minded and a big change from the last seven years. AP

Jeff Colyer insisted that he would strive for something new on that day in January when he became Kansas’ 47th governor.

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

By many reckonings, the Republican has achieved all that as he crosses the three-month line. On key issues, he’s demonstrated steady and productive leadership. Lawmakers describe him as approachable, friendly, willing to listen.

He helped pave the way for the long-awaited resolution of the state’s school-finance crisis. He’s championed the cause of a more open state government in the wake of a Kansas City Star series that concluded that Kansas ranks as perhaps the most secretive state in the nation. He’s advocating bold and sorely needed investments in the state retirement system, in Medicaid, in social workers and in the state’s chronically challenged foster care system. Much of that comes courtesy of a welcome bump in tax revenue.

Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect when Colyer took the reins after a record-setting tenure as the state’s longest-serving lieutenant governor. He had established an unblemished record as Gov. Sam Brownback’s loyal sidekick, never challenging the boss in a public way even on Brownback’s most controversial proposals. That included those much-criticized tax cuts that sent the state reeling.

Under Brownback, Kansas became a national example of the wrong way to manage tax policy. That Colyer failed to protest was concerning. So was his authorship of KanCare, the state’s privately operated Medicaid system that’s been rightly criticized.

In the months leading up to his governorship, Colyer said next to nothing about his plans, and that, too, created a sense of unease. That Colyer is a hard-right social conservative who began his career as a state lawmaker fighting abortion also generated doubts.

Colyer had one big thing going for him: There was no question that Kansas was in desperate need of new leadership following Brownback’s trying tenure. The state was eager to embrace someone new and breathe in that proverbial fresh air. That Colyer has filled that gap while simultaneously mounting a campaign to win the office for himself is a notable achievement.

By refusing to engage his chief rival, renegade Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the new governor has taken an unorthodox tact. “I don't know what his strategy is to win this gubernatorial primary,” Kobach said after Colyer signed a new school finance bill that some conservatives criticized. “But it does appear that he's taking the stance of a tax-and-spend Republican.”

Whether that’s a winning strategy remains to be seen. But it does suggest that Colyer is determined not to inject election-year politics into a tough session. That’s to be applauded.

Colyer’s been most impressive on transparency, signing orders that set up new accountability websites and signing a bipartisan bill that requires certain people seeking to influence executive branch officials to register as lobbyists.

“The people of Kansas have the right to know who is behind getting a bill passed, how they are trying to influence that bill and where the money is coming from,” Colyer said.

He’s also eased the way for resolution of the school-finance crisis. He announced early that he could support increased spending of more than $500 million over five years and declared that public schools would not close under his watch.

It’s a good start. Moving off his long-standing opposition to Medicaid expansion would help even more.

Still, the state is better off with Jeff Colyer at the helm.