Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Is Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer a Sam Brownback clone?

Kansans want to know if Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer is simply Gov. Sam Brownback’s Tweedledee. If Colyer is promoted to governor, he will have a short window to create a sharp distinction.
Kansans want to know if Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer is simply Gov. Sam Brownback’s Tweedledee. If Colyer is promoted to governor, he will have a short window to create a sharp distinction. File photo

Dozens of articles have been written asking the same question: “Who is Jeff Colyer?”

The Kansas lieutenant governor, who soon might be elevated to governor, has a record all right. But because he hasn’t spent much time in the Legislature and isn’t required to take public positions on controversial issues, you need to look hard at the footprints to glean any clues.

With Gov. Sam Brownback likely to take a post in the Trump administration after the legislative session ends soon, that would put Colyer at the helm for the next 19 months. Kansans want to know if Colyer is simply Brownback’s Tweedledee, or would they differ in important ways? Even if Brownback does not leave early, Colyer is likely to run for governor next year. So either way, the question is still valid.

Based on what is known, my hunch is Colyer will be almost a clone of Brownback when it comes to key issues.

Although Colyer’s voting record during his two years in the Kansas House and two years in the state Senate tells us very little, on one issue his rabid views are clear. Colyer is staunchly anti-abortion. That undoubtedly is one of the key reasons Brownback picked him as his running mate twice. On a Richter scale of opposing abortion, Colyer is near the top.

When it comes to overall conservatism, one score tells you a whole lot. Americans for Prosperity, the ultra-conservative political organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers of Wichita, gives Colyer a lifetime score of 97 percent. Colyer, Brownback and the Kochs are soul mates. The Kochs, above all, stand for the lowest taxes possible and the smallest government, bordering on no government except for defense.

Both Colyer and Brownback have a history of humanitarianism. In the U.S. Senate, Brownback was a strong supporter of poor African nations such as Sudan. As a senator, Brownback earned an “A” rating from humanitarian organizations. Colyer, who is a plastic surgeon from Johnson County, has traveled to poor nations all over the world as a volunteer surgeon.

Ironically, both men are anything but compassionate to the poor when it comes to spending state tax dollars. Brownback’s tax policies have shifted much of the tax burden onto the poor and off the rich. The move to lower income taxes with increases in regressive sales taxes has yielded a radical redistribution of wealth.

Colyer was one of the chief architects of KanCare, which privatized Medicaid in Kansas. The controversial program has resulted in significant savings. But services for the poor have suffered dramatically, and untenable delays in payments to doctors are part of the Colyer legacy. Both the governor and lieutenant governor are opposed to any expansion of KanCare.

Although Colyer has not spoken publicly about the Brownback “experiment” — the massive deficits caused by colossal reductions in tax rates and the state income tax exemption for over 300,000 Kansas businesses — he has mouthed the code words that put him on board: He has repeated the conservative mantra that the state should “ensure that essential services are provided and that we’re not taking more money out of people’s pockets.” There are lots of interpretations of what constitutes essential services, and questions remain about whether the very wealthy are the people Colyer is talking about.

Surely there must be some differences between these two men. They cannot be exact clones. Yes, their styles lately have been quite different. Brownback has continued to be aloof when it comes to working with the Legislature. Colyer recently has become very chummy, sending out birthday cards to lawmakers and making congratulatory calls when a legislator’s vote reflects his views.

Assuming he campaigns for governor next year in what is already shaping up to be a crowded field, the key question facing Colyer will be: How does he separate himself from one of the most unpopular governors in Kansas history who is ranked at the bottom of approval ratings among governors nationwide?

If Colyer is promoted to governor, he will have a short window to create a sharp distinction. Should he launch a gubernatorial campaign in the next several months, he will somehow need to tell voters he is not another Brownback — which he clearly is.

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