TOPEKA — In his first address to the joint Kansas Legislature, Jeff Colyer on Wednesday announced four proposals aimed at increasing government transparency and offered a sweeping call to service for legislators facing tough policy issues.
Colyer, a Johnson County surgeon, delivered a speech to legislators from the Kansas House and Senate exactly one week after he was inaugurated to replace Sam Brownback. Colyer praised legislators for their service and promised to keep a “surgeon’s schedule” and stay busy.
“Let’s be very clear — we have some significant challenges to overcome,” Colyer said. “As a surgeon, I’m going to deal with problems head on, without rancor and always with compassion, but there are some things that we need to change, and we need to do it right here, right now.”
Colyer divided those problems into three categories: reform, jobs and education. He will sign four executive orders Thursday lowering the cost of open records, requiring officials to conduct business on state email accounts, implementing performance metrics for Cabinet agencies and launching a website for Kansans to find information on open meetings and materials.
“The Kansas Constitution says, ‘All political power is inherent in the people’ of Kansas,” Colyer said. “Kansas government must be more transparent.”
Transparency has been a key issue for legislators early this session, and legislative leaders in both parties have offered proposals to make government more open, including banning anonymous legislative activity, opening records and livestreaming proceedings. Problems with state government openness were highlighted throughout the Brownback administration in stories published by The Topeka Capital-Journal, The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle.
Colyer praised that work and promised to support a proposal offered by Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, that would require anyone looking to influence the executive branch to register as a lobbyist. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, co-sponsored the measure, which was introduced Wednesday.
“With an annual budget hovering around $16 billion, every aspect of government spending must be fully transparent for the taxpayers,” Wagle said in a news release. “Kansans deserve to know who is influencing the decisions that are being made in Topeka.”
Among Colyer’s other reforms are changes to the makeup of his Cabinet and an executive order he signed Monday in an effort to prevent sexual harassment in state government.
“To anyone here that has experienced these evils, I want you to know that you’ve been heard,” Colyer said. “You have value, and you have all of our respect.”
Throughout his speech, Colyer sought to strike a tone of collaboration with the Legislature, which saw its relationship with Brownback sour. Legislators and Colyer have until April 30 to come up with a fix for K-12 school funding after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in October.
Colyer said several previous governors — Republicans and Democrats — have “had the specter of education lawsuits overshadowing education.”
“This must end now,” Colyer said.
Brownback offered a poorly received proposal last month during his State of the State address that would add $600 million phased in over five years. Colyer appeared to give leeway on that number, saying he knew legislators didn’t like to be told what to do.
“I think the reaction to a recent State of the State address is plenty evidence of that,” Colyer said.
Instead, he promised to sign a school finance bill that keeps schools open, increases resources for K-12 education without increasing taxes, ensures accountability and improved outcomes, and permanently tops frequent school finance litigation — a possible call for a constitutional amendment to limit the court’s authority over school finance.
“This will not be easy, but public servants and leaders are not called to make the easy choices,” Colyer said. “We’re here to do the right thing, and the right thing is never easy.”
Legislators have expected a new tone under Colyer, but weren’t sure his policy positions would be materially different from those held by Brownback. Colyer’s stance on abortion rights mirrors Brownback’s. In his speech, he derided the Shawnee County District Court for claiming the Kansas Constitution offers a right to abortion.
The case, which would decide the fate of a first-in-the nation ban on “dismemberment” abortions, is at the Kansas Supreme Court.
“On the issue of life, the stakes are so high, the issue is so foundational, the people of Kansas must have the final say,” Colyer said.
It wasn't clear whether he favored amending the constitution to rid it of any court-interpreted right to abortion.
Colyer criticized the Brownback administration’s habit of sweeping funds from the Kansas Department of Transportation to plug budget holes. He called on lawmakers to “build an effective plan that promotes economic development and strengthens our transportation network.”
Colyer ended his speech by challenging legislators to be selfless and put the state’s long-term interests ahead of short-term political gain.
“I challenge all of us to come together, to work together, to show the world that Kansas is the true heart of America,” Colyer said.