Gov. Sam Brownback’s plodding exit from Kansas politics led Tuesday to disclosure of Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s assumption of a prominent role in developing new state government budget recommendations and in selection of a new Cabinet secretary to manage social programs.
Colyer cannot be sworn in as governor until Brownback is affirmed by the U.S. Senate to a job in the administration of President Donald Trump, but informal transfer of power reflects a desire to raise Colyer’s profile in anticipation of replacing Brownback before the end of the year. It also could bolster Colyer’s candidacy for the 2018 Republican nomination for governor.
Brownback requested Colyer take the lead in formulating the budget proposal to be submitted in January to the 2018 Legislature, said Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr.
“Governor Brownback determined that it would be appropriate for the lieutenant governor to handle the budget to ensure a smooth transition,” Marr said.
Brownback was nominated by Trump in July and the governor was narrowly endorsed by a Senate committee in October. In Washington, D.C., Democrats have slowed the Senate confirmation process to a crawl.
In Kansas, the Legislature’s Democratic leaders said basic campaign calculus had something to do with moving Colyer out of the shadows and into limelight. The presumed font-runner in the GOP governor’s race is Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Colyer must have decided he can’t wait any longer to put his fingerprints on the executive branch, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
“It’s being very presumptuous on their part. Brownback hasn’t even been confirmed by the Senate,” Hensley said. “As long as he’s governor, I think it should be Brownback making appointments and developing the budget.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said after a speech to Johnson County Republicans that Brownback would eventually depart Topeka to be Trump’s international ambassador of religious freedom. Colyer’s broadened role at this juncture can be helpful when the Legislature confronts another challenging budget cycle, he said.
“It makes sense that he has a say in the budget,” Ryckman said. “We need his input and his guidance and his leadership going into the session.”
Ryckman said the same reasoning applied to selection of a new secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
On Wednesday, Colyer will name his choice to replace Phyllis Gilmore, a controversial Cabinet secretary who resigned as DCF’s secretary, effective Dec. 1. Brownback praised Gilmore’s service to the state at the same time Republican and Democratic legislators denounced her oversight of an agency responsible for welfare services and the privatized foster care system.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and a candidate for governor, said the activation of Colyer conflicted with the lieutenant governor’s previous attempts to deflect policy questions by declaring the state could only have one governor.
A month ago, Colyer said: “Right now we have one governor at a time, and we will continue to work within that context.”
Ward said the inconsistency likely resulted from Colyer’s growing concern about Kobach’s candidacy. In Kansas, Ward said, the appointment of a Cabinet and formulation of a budget are two of the most significant roles of a governor.
Ward predicted creation of a shadow governor wouldn’t provide Colyer separation from his rival Kobach or an unpopular Brownback.
“Jeff thinks it’s helping him,” Ward said. “There isn’t a whit of difference between Jeff and Kobach.”
The task of drafting a state government budget for the fiscal year starting next July 1 is a formidable task despite the 2017 Legislature’s adoption of a $600 million tax hike that was opposed by Colyer and Brownback. The Kansas Supreme Court also ruled the state’s current system of financing K-12 public schools to be unconstitutional, creating additional pressure on state resources.