TOPEKA — Standing in front of the Statehouse Christmas tree moments after lighting it Wednesday, Gov. Sam Brownback disputed the notion he was handing off key responsibilities to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
Brownback was fulfilling one of his ceremonial duties as governor and has made announcements and judicial appointments in recent weeks, but Colyer has taken over other major duties, like drafting the governor’s budget and naming agency heads. Colyer was in Wichita on Wednesday morning to announce a $1 billion investment by Spirit AeroSpace expected to create 1,000 jobs.
For weeks, Brownback has been waiting for the U.S. Senate to vote on his confirmation for a federal job. When he leaves, Colyer will take over while he runs for the Republican nomination for the 2018 gubernatorial race. For now, Brownback and Colyer’s spokesman said the governor is still in charge despite criticism from some legislators over a seemingly two-man approach to state leadership. Other legislators took no issue with the gradual transition of power.
“It’s not a co-governorship,” Brownback said.
Brownback said he was trying to get Colyer moving before the Legislature returns in January. He hoped his confirmation vote would come before the end of the year, but he didn’t know when he would get approved.
“We’re really trying to do more like a relay race so that you’ve got continued momentum moving on forward,” Brownback said.
David Popp, a spokesman for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said in an email he did not have any guidance on Brownback’s confirmation vote.
Colyer Spokesman Kendall Marr said Brownback was still “in the driver’s seat” directing state government but could delegate to Colyer. He said he thought it was clear Brownback was still calling the shots in state government.
“There’s one governor at a time,” Marr said.
Some legislators don’t see it that way.
“He’s got the title, he’s got the salary, he’s got the house — and he ought to be doing their job,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, called Brownback an “absentee governor.”
Legislators will be back in town in January to tackle several major issues, including school finance. Kelly said she thought having “governor one, governor two” would make things more difficult and a “State of the State duet” would be awkward.
Brownback said he still would give the address if he wasn’t confirmed by the time it rolled around in January. Marr said that decision would be up to the governor and it was “unlikely” Colyer would deliver the address.
As far as the day-to-day duties go now, Marr said legislators should still be going to Brownback with any questions or issues they want to discuss.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, said she was fine with the setup, as long as state government still functioned.
“If we can just get me a budget — and I don’t care where it comes from — I’m ready to do my job,” Clayton said.
She said it appeared Colyer was taking over operational duties and Brownback was continuing to handle ceremonial responsibilities. But Clayton said it seemed unprecedented and that it might be good etiquette for Brownback — who is term-limited — to step aside and let Colyer govern.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman said the arrangement made sense to him with Brownback’s focus on getting into his Washington job.
“It makes sense for him to turn over some of the responsibilities of the office to Lt. Gov. Colyer, which is certainly legitimate although somewhat unusual,” Hineman said.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, said she thought it was wise for the governor to hand off duties, and she expected his vote to come soon now that the U.S. Senate has passed its major tax legislation.
“If that doesn’t happen and Gov. Brownback does not want or wish to resign at this point, then that is his prerogative, and he will deliver the State of the State address and will be our governor until he’s confirmed,” Lynn said.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said he thought the state had “two half-governors.” Beatty said he thought Brownback would have to decide whether he wants to resign in January whether he’s confirmed or not so legislators will know who to talk to.