TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback exuded confidence Thursday that his impending resignation to work on religious freedom issues at the international level as a member of the Trump administration would leave the state in the capable hands of surgeon Jeff Colyer.
“We have a wonderful lieutenant governor. Jeff has done a fantastic job,” Brownback said during a news conference at the Capitol. “He’s his own man, his own person. He’s an accomplished physician, an accomplished public-policy person.”
On Wednesday, Trump nominated Brownback to be the United States ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
In terms of a transition of power, Brownback said he’d spoken with Colyer about unresolved issues in state government, implementation of administration policy and options for grappling with unexpected challenges. In the past, Colyer described his partnership with Brownback as something close to a chief executive officer or a loyal lieutenant along the lines of a “Star Trek” character.
“I’m his first officer,” Colyer said in an interview.
John Gibson, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party, placed a partisan spin on the looming leadership hand off from Brownback to Colyer.
“Colyer has been an active and willing participant in the disastrous policies of Sam Brownback,” Gibson said. “The only way to reverse the effects of the Brownback-Colyer administration is to elect more Democrats.”
Brownback said Colyer, an Overland Park surgeon who performs cosmetic and reconstruction surgeries and a former member of the Kansas House and Senate, possessed special command of health-care policy. Colyer has joined with Brownback in aggressively opposing expansion of eligibility of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and took a central role in the administration’s privatization of the Medicaid system in 2013.
At a conference of U.S. lieutenant governors this week in Nashville, Tenn., Colyer said the controversial shift to a managed-care Medicaid model would save Kansas $1 billion over 10 years and improve coverage to participants. The state’s Medicaid program is known as KanCare, and providers and clients have complained about payment delays and service waiting lists.
“In 2011, when I took office, the growth rate of our Medicaid expenditures was not fiscally sustainable. Implementing KanCare allowed us to focus on Medicaid beneficiaries’ holistic needs, significantly improving care and treatment while curtailing costs,” Colyer said.
Colyer, 57, has volunteered with the International Medical Corps, an organization that conducts medical relief missions. He’s performed surgery and trained physicians in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Rwanda and the Central African Republic.
He grew up in Hays, graduated from Georgetown University and completed medical school at the University of Kansas in Kansas City, Kan.
He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 2002 prior to election to the Kansas Legislature, which he left when elected lieutenant governor in 2010. In aftermath of Brownback and Colyer’s re-election in 2014, Colyer found himself at the vortex of a federal investigation into his three $500,000 loans to the campaign in 2013 and 2014. A grand jury inquiry two years ago didn’t produce a criminal indictment.
Colyer’s ascendancy to the governorship — there is no timetable for Brownback’s move to Washington — could influence whether he joins the field seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2018.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach and 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee Jim Barnett have entered the contest, but Colyer has yet to formally step into that fray.
Lack of attention traditionally paid to Kansas’ lieutenant governors gives Colyer an opportunity to define himself before statewide primary elections in August 2018, said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka.
“There is a massive disconnect between the political junkies who know Jeff Colyer, that’s a small group, and all the rest of Kansans,” Beatty said. “That is an advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is he has a chance to introduce himself. The disadvantage is that he’s, of course, strongly associated with Sam Brownback.”
To expand awareness of Colyer, the lieutenant governor has appeared more frequently in public since Trump was elected president and rumors started about Brownback taking a job in the administration.