Jeff Colyer will soon step out of Sam Brownback’s shadow when he becomes governor of Kansas. But he still declines to talk policy. File photo The Kansas City Star
Jeff Colyer will soon step out of Sam Brownback’s shadow when he becomes governor of Kansas. But he still declines to talk policy. File photo The Kansas City Star

Steve Kraske

What does Jeff Colyer plan to do as Kansas governor? He’s not saying

By Steve Kraske

September 21, 2017 04:36 PM

On that day in June 2010 when Sam Brownback picked his running mate, the governor-to-be positively gushed about Jeff Colyer.

“Jeff’s brilliant,” Brownback said of Colyer. “He’s extremely well-qualified. He’s talented. He’s a wonderful humanitarian … he’s just a total package.”

Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Since then, Brownback and Colyer have walked arm-in-arm. And today, Colyer ranks as the longest-serving second banana in Kansas history.

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All that is prelude to the state’s rapidly changing political circumstances. Brownback may be just days away from Senate confirmation hearings on his face-saving nomination to get out of Kansas and serve as President Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Given that, it’s time for Colyer to finally tell the state what he plans to do with the 15 months or so he may have in the state’s most powerful job. Kansas is, after all, in the midst of a seismic transition away from Brownback-Colyer conservatism and back toward the state’s traditional moderate roots.

Nobody seems to know how Colyer will deal with it. Will he fight the moderate forces that are carrying the day now? Or will he move with the tides of the times?

Goodness knows, he’s had enough time to come up with the answers.

Colyer appears to be distancing himself from Brownback in the early stages of his just-announced gubernatorial candidacy by promising a “new day in Kansas.”

Even his spokeswoman got into the act, saying that “Dr. Colyer intends to listen, to lead and to bring people together.” Bringing people together, of course, has not been a Brownback strong suit.

Thus far, Colyer is doing everything in his power to avoid answering these difficult questions. He turns down media requests for interviews (including for this column). He’s refused to answer pointed questions about his policy stands. Even when he’s contemplated accepting interviews, his aides have tossed in a caveat: He won’t talk policy.

But Colyer, a Republican, is willing to shake a lot of hands. In recent weeks, he’s appeared at the annual Grant County Home Products Dinner out in Ulysses. He made “Governor’s Awards Presentations” at the State Fair in Hutchinson. He attended the Wichita State University Engineering and IT Career Fair, an Ottawa Chamber of Commerce breakfast and the Jewish Cultural Fest in Overland Park.

And, as governors often do, he read a children’s book to grade-schoolers. This one was Darby Boingg Learns that Every Face has a Special Smile, and he read it to fourth-graders in Topeka.

But what about taxes, school funding and Medicaid?

Some of this avoidance is surely because he’s not governor yet and may not know when that day is coming. But taxpayers are eager to hear more from their leader-in-waiting.

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School funding could prove to be an immediate challenge, especially if the state Supreme Court rules that the Legislature’s school funding package was too meager. What’s Colyer going to do about the recurring unrest at state prisons? What does he plan to do to clean up problems with KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program? This is Colyer’s baby; he was deeply involved in the program’s creation in 2013.

The state budget is always a concern. A rural recession has dogged the state for much of Brownback’s second term.

Jeff Colyer has been in the shadows long enough. It’s time to end the suspense. Where do you want to take us, governor?