Topeka Gov. Jeff Colyer gave his first address to a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday, laying out a number of initiatives he wants to pursue involving government reform and transparency, job growth, health care and education.
But he made no new specific proposals about the biggest issue facing lawmakers this year: responding to a Kansas Supreme Court decision declaring the current system of funding public schools unconstitutional.
Colyer’s speech came one week to the day after he was sworn into office, succeeding former Gov. Sam Brownback, who resigned to accept a diplomatic post in the Trump administration.
Much of Colyer’s speech restated policies he had previously announced, including reforming the state’s child welfare system and issuing an executive order requiring employees in the executive branch to undergo annual sexual harassment training.
But he also outlined some new initiatives, including a set of executive orders he said would be issued Thursday involving open records and government transparency.
Reform and transparency
“Transparency is the key to better accountability, and accountability is the key to real results,” Colyer said.
Starting Thursday, he said, the executive branch will no longer charge fees for records that are fewer than 100 pages.
He also said he would require employees in the administration to use official email accounts to conduct state business, implement performance measures for cabinet agencies and launch a website for cabinet agencies to post open meetings, locations and materials.
As he introduced those topics, Colyer praised lawmakers from both sides of the aisle for the measures they have already introduced dealing with reform and transparency.
Abortion and health care
But Colyer struck a more partisan tone when he talked about his stance on abortion, an issue that is currently pending before the Kansas Supreme Court.
“When Kansas first entered the Union, two of our first laws emphasized basic human dignity,” he said. “As a free state, Kansas prohibited slavery.”
“The same founders — whose names appear on these walls — passed laws prohibiting abortion,” he added. “That same constitution that prohibited slavery did not mention a right to an abortion.”
That statement was greeted with a standing ovation from the Republican side of the aisle, while Democrats sat quietly and did not respond.
The case before the Supreme Court challenges a law enacted in 2015 that bans a procedure commonly used in second-trimester abortions, known as dilation and evacuation, or D&E.;
The legal challenge to it, however, rests on a broader theory that the Kansas Constitution provides the same rights of privacy and due process that courts have previously found in the U.S. Constitution, the same provisions that have been used as the basis for federal court decisions upholding a woman’s right to an abortion, but which some women’s groups fear could be overturned with the U.S. Supreme Court’s new, more conservative makeup.
The Kansas law was quickly placed on hold by a Shawnee County judge, who said the plaintiffs in the case, two doctors who provide abortion services in Johnson County, were likely to win on the merits of the case.
“This is violence against basic facts,” Colyer said. “This cannot stand. We are a pro-life state.”
Meanwhile, Colyer said he wants to continue working with lawmakers to improve KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid system, which he helped establish during the Brownback administration.
Colyer laid out a set of principles that he wants to use in guiding the discussions on KanCare going forward. Those include improving health care outcomes for those in the program, reducing the rate of growth in the cost of the program, fixing the eligibility system and clearing up the backlog of applications for Medicaid assistance, and developing a work requirement for some Medicaid recipients.
Regarding job growth, Colyer boasted that Kansas currently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in years, at 3.4 percent. But he also said many high-paying jobs are going unfilled because employers cannot find workers with the necessary skills.
“An expanding economy with opportunities for higher income and rising standards of living only works if our citizens have the right tools to make the most of their own lives,” he said.
Toward that end, Colyer said his administration would be launching a program called the “My (Re) Employment Plan" that will provide free services such as skills assessment, resume-writing, interviewing and networking assistance and labor market information that highlights current in-demand jobs.
“This program is designed to help our friends and neighbors get back to earning paychecks and working good jobs,” he said.
Finally, Colyer said he wants to find a solution to the state’s school funding system that will put an end to future litigation, but he offered no new specific proposals.
“As a former legislator, I know that you don’t appreciate being told what to do by a governor, or anyone else for that matter,” he said. “I think the reaction to the recent State of the State address is plenty evidence of that.”
That was a reference to Brownback’s proposal to phase in over five years a $600 million increase in annual school funding, without offering a long-term funding mechanism to make sure the state could afford to keep that commitment.
Colyer did, however, say that he would sign a school funding bill that meets four objectives: keeping schools open; ending future litigation; phasing in an increase in K-12 funding; and stricter accountability standards for improved educational outcomes.
“In Kansas, we invest in our schools, not because a court tells us to, but because we want to invest in our children and our future,” Colyer said.
Although Colyer did not break from the Brownback administration in any major policy area, Republican leaders in the Legislature gave him generally good marks for establishing a new, more conciliatory tone with the speech.
“He’s going to be talking to us. He is bringing people into his office. We’re very thankful for that,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said after the speech. “And we’re looking for leadership as he grasps the issues, and he understands what we’re facing. We’ll be seeking his leadership.”
“I think both with his inaugural address a week ago and his speech today, I think he’s moving in that direction to establish himself as a separate individual,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton. “He was a loyal soldier for seven years, but now he has an opportunity to further define himself.”
Democratic leaders, however, said they found the speech full of bipartisan platitudes, but short on substance.
“It was things everyone could agree with. Everyone wants to end the cycle of litigation,” House Minority Leader Jim Ward of Wichita, who, like Colyer, is running for governor in the 2018 elections, said in an interview after the speech.
“To me, it was confusing,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said in a separate interview. “I guess I can interpret his comments that the previous State of the State message really wasn’t all that well received, I guess that means he’s backing off the $600 million that Brownback had proposed. But then again, I don’t know for sure. So I don’t know what his school finance plan will be.”
Both Ward and Hensley said they were surprised that, amid all of his overtures toward bipartisanship, Colyer inserted language in the speech about abortion.
“That sounded more like something you’d do on the campaign stump, not in a legislative body when you’re trying to bring people together and solve problems,” Ward said.
In recent weeks, activist groups such as Kansans for Life have begun planning to propose a state constitutional amendment to restrict abortion rights if, as they expect, the Kansas Supreme Court rules against them.
Hensley said he couldn’t predict whether such a measure could get the two-thirds majority in both chambers that it would need to be placed on a statewide ballot. But he said the references to abortion seemed out of place in a speech that was otherwise geared toward striking a bipartisan tone.
“He is a candidate for governor, so he’s got to try to appeal to the moderate Republicans in a Republican primary,” he said. “And I think he’s figuring out that that’s really the only way he’s going to be able to go because I think (Secretary of State Kris) Kobach will have the Republican right-wing base in his corner.”