Newly installed Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer described his state Wednesday as vibrant but with trouble spots, telling lawmakers he plans to tackle its problems.
Colyer promised to reform the state’s struggling foster care system, improve its privatized Medicaid program, open government activities into clearer public view and help more Kansans find jobs.
The speech was effectively a State of the State speech by a former two-term lieutenant governor now one week into higher office and trying to distinguish himself from his unpopular running mate, former Gov. Sam Brownback. Brownback delivered a formal State of the State address last month.
Yet, Colyer gave few specifics on the looming issue vexing legislators: how to find hundreds of millions of dollars potentially needed to bring the state in compliance with a court order to shore up its funding for local school districts.
“We must keep our schools open,” he said. Like Brownback, he called for doing so without a tax hike.
But Colyer didn’t repeat the proposed $600 million funding increase that was featured in the former governor’s speech — and drew a swift backlash from lawmakers who felt it was unattainable. Instead, he called for a gradual increase.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning saw that as a signal Colyer is backing off of that number and letting lawmakers figure out what’s possible.
“That gives us all the assurance in the world that he trusts our work,” Denning said.
Colyer also said he wants lawmakers this year to bring him “a definitive solution that ends the school finance lawsuits for good.”
Some Republicans want to amend the state constitution to prevent courts from weighing in anymore on school funding. Colyer didn’t clarify whether that’s what he wanted.
Democratic Rep. Valdenia Winn said Colyer’s comments concerned her because the judiciary is part of Kansas’ system of checks and balances.
“He has a positive tone,” she said. “But tone is one thing — and equal opportunity before the law is another.”
Colyer has repeatedly promised to "change the tone in Topeka." That theme featured in Wednesday’s speech, where he noted that in his first week in office, he met with Democratic leaders, signed an executive order requiring thousands of state workers to undergo annual training on preventing sexual harassment and promised to push for government transparency.
He thanked lawmakers for proposing a slew of transparency measures in recent weeks.
“It’s time for the executive branch to do its part,” he said.
Colyer said he would cut costs for people who seek open records, improve online access to schedules and materials for public meetings and push officials to use government instead of private email accounts.
On the state’s foster care system, which is struggling to offer refuge for children from troubled families, he pledged to hire more child welfare workers and investigators and add emergency placement options.
“So there are no more kids sleeping in offices,” he said.
He promised to fight sexual harassment, as well as investigate and handle allegations promptly and appropriately.
“Harassment in any form, at any time, in any place,” he said, “will not be tolerated in my administration.”
A recent Kansas Human Rights Commission investigation found a state contractor likely fired a woman as retaliation for her reporting a high-ranking Brownback administration official’s habitual sexual harassment.
He vowed to continue Brownback’s efforts to curtail abortion and questioned court decisions that protect a women’s right to end a pregnancy.
Any argument that state and federal constitutions include a right to abortion “is violence against basic facts,” he said. “We are a pro-life state.”
Colyer cited the state’s low jobless rate, less than 4 percent, but said too many jobs go unfilled.
He promised to launch a “My (Re) Employment” program to help job hunters polish their resumes and find high-demand fields, as well as to continue investing in career and technical education.
Colyer inherited a tough budget situation.
One Kansas administration after the next has underfunded the state’s pension system and diverted funds from highway infrastructure. And state revenue woes in recent years — widely blamed on Brownback’s signature 2012 tax cuts — cut into higher education and other government functions.
Colyer called for ending the practice of borrowing from the state’s highway fund to pay for other state government services.
On the day of his speech, the Kansas Department of Commerce announced a deal that would bring the headquarters of hospital chain HCA Midwest Health to Overland Park from Kansas City, Mo. The state said it wasn’t making the government incentives in the deal public because the contract hadn’t been finalized.
Colyer, who works for an HCA hospital as a physician, said he was not involved in putting together the package.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.
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