When Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer ascends to the governorship Wednesday, he will face a looming deadline to add money to K-12 schools and a Republican-led Legislature increasingly vocal about its dissatisfaction with his predecessor.
Colyer, an Overland Park plastic surgeon, has been waiting to take the governor's office since Gov. Sam Brownback was nominated in July to become ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He is also seeking the Republican nomination to run for governor this fall. Brownback narrowly cleared Senate confirmation this past week and will resign at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Brownback's relationship with Republican leaders in the Legislature has been strained, spurring opposition to several major proposals, including his budget that adds $600 million to schools without a tax increase or corresponding spending cuts. Colyer has been at Brownback's side since their election in 2010 but promises a "new day" for Kansas, and many legislators are ready to work with him.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said legislators appreciated Brownback and his values and were happy to see him take a position in religious freedom, a "passion" area for him.
"It's been upsetting to us that his budget proposal we just received spent more money than we have in the bank, so our concern is a fiscal issue. It's not — he's a very genuine person," Wagle said. "He's very honest — but we still have to make the ends meet in our budget."
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican and chairman of the House health committee, has worked with Colyer on KanCare. He said Brownback has operated with "blinders" on and hasn't worked with the Legislature.
"I think people will see (Colyer) reaching out to the Legislature to work with instead of being antagonistic," Hawkins said. "The legislative process and the governor have been antagonistic for quite a while now."
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he had a positive relationship working with Colyer on a budget when they were both in the Kansas Senate. Colyer was elected senator in 2008 and served just two years before becoming Brownback's lieutenant.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what will be Gov. Colyer if he's willing to work with us in a bipartisan coalition," Hensley said.
Hensley said Colyer had watched the growing opposition to Brownback.
"I think Jeff Colyer wants to make sure that doesn't happen to him, so from that standpoint, I think he'll be very cautious and I think he will attempt to try to work with the other side of the aisle," Hensley said. "I'm giving him a lot of the benefit of the doubt there, I understand.
"Wagle said Colyer didn't have a leadership role as a freshman senator who only served for two years, and she didn't know what to expect in terms of his policy priorities as governor.
Colyer has been quiet on his policy priorities, but called for more funds for child welfare services alongside Gina Meier-Hummel, whom he named to head the Kansas Department for Children and Families. Colyer has also been instrumental in KanCare and KanCare 2.0, which has created concern among Republicans and will be delayed.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said he didn't expect Colyer's policy priorities to differ significantly from those championed by Brownback. Ward is running for the Democratic nomination for governor.
"What I will expect and I have seen in the last year is I think Jeff will be at least willing to ask our opinions and see if there's areas where we can agree," Ward said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he expected a shift in tone under Colyer and that future governors wouldn't have to worry about budget crises because the Legislature overrode Brownback last year to roll back his signature tax cuts. The budget still isn't completely balanced in 2020 if legislators plan to fully fund highways and public pensions, but the state no longer faces massive and immediate budget shortfalls.
"The Senate and the House legislators fixed the budget and stability last year, so the governors that are coming on board — the crisis has been solved for them," Denning said. "The budget is stable."
Colyer has repeatedly pledged to "listen, serve and lead" in comments and emails to supporters of his gubernatorial campaign.
"If it is a new day, then the lieutenant governor will have to create that new day and create a confidence in his leadership," Wagle said.