TOPEKA — Republican and Democratic legislators reacted with cautious optimism Wednesday to the collaborative tone of Gov. Jeff Colyer’s first speech to a joint session of the Kansas Legislature.
Colyer offered a reason to believe years of acrimonious political battles with ideologically driven Gov. Sam Brownback might be set aside to shape workable compromise on education, transportation, health and economic development programs.
“As he grasps the issues and he understands what we’re facing, we’ll be seeking his leadership,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. “He just took office. We want to give him a chance.”
“I think it gives everybody new hope,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat. “Whether or not it works, we will find out.”
Colyer detailed contents of his executive orders related to sexual harassment and transparency at Cabinet agencies, but he didn’t explain how he would correct constitutional flaws in K-12 funding, break the state’s addiction to raids on highway funding, meet state pension obligations or deal with other demands for state spending.
In Brownback’s final State of the State speech in January, he enraged GOP legislators by recommending a five-year, $600 million expansion of state aid to public schools. Brownback resigned last Wednesday to take a job in the administration of President Donald Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said he appreciated Colyer left to legislators the job of determining how much new money was necessary to bring the system into constitutional compliance.
“His marching order to us was, ‘Do what’s right. Do what we can afford. Do it without raising taxes and give him something that makes sense.’ And, that’s what we do as legislators,” Denning said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said he heard Colyer call for drawing down more federal funding of Medicaid, but the governor didn’t endorse expansion of eligibility to approximately 150,000 Kansans. He listened as Colyer denounced Brownback’s raids on highway funding, but didn’t reveal how that cycle would be broken.
“In terms of specifics, there was very little,” Ward said.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said Colyer’s inaugural speech a week ago and his follow-up remarks to the House and Senate were part of the process of adjusting public perceptions of the governor’s office.
“He was a loyal soldier for seven years, but now he has an opportunity to further define himself,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the speech changed nothing about Colyer’s central objective. He said the new governor was intent on building momentum in his race for the GOP nomination for governor ahead of the August primary. Colyer needs to build a resume that can stand up to assaults from Secretary of State Kris Kobach and others in the large GOP field, Hensley said.
“He’ll make every effort to try to separate himself from Sam Brownback,” Hensley said.
Sen. David Haley, a Democrat in Kansas City, Kan., said he understood Colyer’s appeal for a constitutional amendment to protect abortion restrictions in Kansas.
“I understand the governor is in a very tight race,” Haley said. “I don’t know that this is something the current Legislature will be in a position to affirm. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’m pro-choice.”