Jeff Colyer is being intentionally coy about future plans or the outgoing Kansas governor honestly doesn't know what's next.

"I believe in service. That's why I'm a doctor and that's why I've also been involved in public service," said Colyer, spoken like a politician keeping options open.

But, then, he mentions being presented with interesting opportunities outside of government. He also notes he has spoken with folks in the administration of President Donald Trump. He expects to continue working as a surgeon, maybe not full time, but wants to again make use of his medical skills overseas in conflict zones.

Run for U.S. House or U.S. Senate? In January, the 3rd congressional district will be represented by rookie Democrat Sharice Davids. Her most vulnerable moment will be while running for re-election in 2020. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican, may surprise people by not seeking re-election.

"I'm not an MMF fighter," Colyer said, referring to Davids' time in the ring. "I'm not saying never, but I'm getting some great opportunities in both the private and public sector. I really don't know what's going to happen. Let's see what really happens. Give it some time."



Handing over the keys

Colyer took the oath of office Jan. 31, 2018. He reached that political nexus following election to the Kansas House in 2006, the Kansas Senate in 2008 and as lieutenant governor in 2010. He replaced Gov. Sam Brownback, who resigned to become an international ambassador of religious freedom under Trump.

"Everybody understands I came in in very difficult circumstances," Colyer said during an interview in his Capitol office. "We're in an entirely different place than we were just a year ago."

State government in Kansas during the Brownback-Colyer years was marked by budget problems. Fierce economic forces and an aggressive supply-side approach to tax policy damned the revenue stream needed to sustain basic operations. Brownback scrambled to fill the budget craters by raising sales taxes, drawing down highway funding, reducing expenditures and heavy borrowing.

The state didn't turn a corner until 2017 when the GOP-led Legislature repealed the 2012 state income tax exemption for business owners and reversed individual income tax cuts championed by Brownback. The flip was executed over Brownback's veto.

Colyer followed months later by signing a bill investing more than $500 million in public education — a move disappointing to some conservatives but welcomed by moderates and liberals. Colyer narrowly lost the GOP nomination for governor in August. Secretary of State Kris Kobach was defeated in the general election by Democrat Laura Kelly, a Topeka state senator. She'll be sworn in Jan. 14.

"I’m grateful to Governor Jeff Colyer for his cooperation during the transition," Kelly said. "Access to agency staff and secretaries made the process more productive. I also commend him for signing the school finance bill."

Colyer said he had spoken with Kelly several times since the November election. He had heard about Kelly's statement that a review of state agencies revealed worse-than-imagined staffing and operational issues. Kelly said her administration would "triage" the challenges.

"When you're sitting on the other side, it's hard to bring it all in and put it into place," Colyer said. "I want to make sure people are looking forward, not looking backwards relitigating the past. My advice to the governor-elect is to listen to Kansans and look at where we're going."



Eleven months at helm

Colyer said he was pleased to have brought a different tone to the governor's office during his nearly one-year stint. He did it by promoting government transparency and publicly conceding the state's child welfare system was in trouble. As a new governor, he welcomed the Legislature's work on school funding and brought industry and education together to help build a workforce of the future.

He spoke excitedly about an announcement Wednesday by Spirit Aerosystems, of Wichita, that it would surpass a goal of creating 1,000 jobs through a $1 billion expansion. The company said it intended to hire an additional 1,400 people.

"We've got to have higher value jobs," Colyer said. "That's why this was so important. We're talking about 2,400 aerospace jobs. That ripples through other parts of the economy, not just in Wichita but across the state."

Colyer said the state had demonstrated to Spirit that it was committed to developing the kind of technologically savvy labor force needed by manufacturing companies.

The state's general economic health is improving after years of stagnation, he said. He said there were more Kansans employed than anytime in state history, with unemployment at very low levels. He said wages in Kansas had grown 4.8 percent this year.

He said the state treasury would be flush with a projected $900 million surplus, which means Kelly's first year would have benefit of a stable financial platform. That reality is reflected in an improved credit outlook for Kansas, he said.

"I want to make sure that people understand we're getting on a footing where we can get to some pretty good growth in the next few years," he said.

He is keenly aware the state's agriculture economy remains in turmoil, especially with depressed prices and the ongoing international trade war. He said the state should keep hunting new trade opportunities. The legalization of industrial hemp will give Kansas farmers a new alternative crop, he said.

On his way out, Colyer said he didn't have regrets about his time as governor. He had hoped the state Supreme Court would have concluded a specific method of abortion, the so-called dismemberment procedure, was not a right embodied in the Kansas Constitution.

"I think that's clearly something that is not in the constitution," the governor said.


It's personal

Kelly Arnold, the conservative former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, and moderate GOP Rep. Don Hineman, of Dighton, both said Colyer performed admirably.

"I think of somebody who picked up that ball when Governor Brownback left and moved it forward in his own direction. I think he did a good job working with the Legislature," Arnold said.

Hineman said Colyer had the disadvantage of entering under a dark political cloud and tricky financial circumstances. He gave the governor "high marks."
 
Colyer said it was important for the Republican Party to be inclusive and resist the urge to purge. Moderate politicians in Kansas won't abandon the GOP in big numbers, he said, despite recent defections to the Kansas Democratic Party by two state senators and one state representative.

"I think you should just be transparent with people about where you are. I'm happy that they're doing that," Colyer said. "That being said, the Kansas Republican Party and the national Republican Party should be a big-tent party. And, it is. When you look at this Legislature ... you have the whole arc there. And you don't see that arc on the other side. You see a half moon."

Colyer said he learned a value lesson while Kansas governor. He now appreciates the personal connection Kansans can develop with this state's governor. It is a feeling he didn't grasp while serving as lieutenant governor, senator or representative.

"The thing I really found is that Kansas, being 3 million people, I am literally one person away from anybody in the state," he said. "The connections are that close. In other states, even other small states, you don't have that sense of community. I think that's incredibly special. I didn't realize how important that was. It's very personal."