Topeka As Gov. Sam Brownback moves closer to becoming the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer has been quietly making plans to move his own team into the governor's office.
In the last few weeks, Colyer has put together his own communications team, naming Kendall Marr, a former aide to Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, to be his communications director, and former TV reporter Kara Fullmer to be his main spokeswoman.
He also has been putting together his own policy team, although he remains largely quiet about whom that will include. Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, has been serving as a special assistant, but so far Colyer hasn't talked about which cabinet secretaries he will ask to remain or whom he might name to be his own lieutenant governor.
"Right now we have one governor at a time, and we will continue to work within that context," Colyer told reporters recently.
Depending on how quickly the U.S. Senate confirms Brownback for the ambassadorship, it is almost certain that Colyer will be governor through the upcoming 2018 legislative session.
At the same time, he is also running for the GOP nomination for governor in 2018 in what has already turned out to be a crowded and competitive primary campaign. Currently, he faces at least six other contenders in that race: Secretary of State Kris Kobach; Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer; former Sen. Jim Barnett; Wichita businessman Willis "Wink" Hartman; former Rep. Mark Hutton, of Wichita; and former Rep. Ed O'Malley, who also now lives in Wichita.
Yet, even though he has been lieutenant governor for the past seven years — longer than any other lieutenant governor in Kansas history — Colyer remains largely unknown outside the Statehouse. And even within the Statehouse, opinions differ about what type of governor he would be.
"Policy-wise, I don’t see too much of a deviation from the Brownback administration," said Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. "I think having the knowledge of being in both the House and the Senate, he is more apt to possibly work with members of the House and Senate."
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she thinks Colyer will be easier to work with for Democrats than Brownback has been. But she also said that is mild praise.
"Clearly, the bar is pretty low, so it wouldn't take much to collaborate more with Democrats, but I would also suggest moderate Republicans," she said. "I think we have seen an administration who is not interested in moderate policy of any sort, so I hope so. He's actually in a tough situation, though, because he's actually running for the position, and for him to walk that fine line between working in a bipartisan way to promote good policy can really conflict with the stances he needs to take to get through a Republican primary."
Colyer, 57, served two years in the Kansas House, from 2007 to 2009, representing a district in Johnson County where he lives and works as a plastic surgeon. He then served two years in the Senate before he was chosen to be Brownback's running mate in the 2010 election.
Outside of politics, he is perhaps best known for his work in the International Medical Corps, a group of doctors who volunteer their services in refugee camps and war-torn areas around the world. That has taken Colyer to such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Kosovo.
Health care policy has been Colyer's main duty within the Brownback administration. He was the architect of KanCare, the state's privatized Medicaid system.
Under that system, three private for-profit insurance companies are paid a flat, per-person rate to manage the care and pay the health care costs of the state's roughly 430,000 Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program beneficiaries.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said Colyer's knowledge about health care issues has been his biggest strength.
"I support the expansion of Medicaid, and that's something he doesn't support, so we've had our policy differences," Sloan said. "On the other hand, I'm working with the Veterans Administration, health care folks from Wichita and Kansas City, the Kansas Hospital Association and KU Medical Center to increase coordination and the use of telemedicine to make services available to veterans, and his staff has been supportive of those efforts. So on some health care issues we agree, and on some we disagree."
Colyer has been an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare and has argued forcefully against expanding KanCare under that law to cover more people.
"Kansans have made it very clear they do not like Obamacare, and they have said that over and over," Colyer said recently. "What Kansans have made clear is they don't want more government; they want smaller government. But they want results for us."
KanCare itself, however, has run into serious troubles of its own. That program operates under a federal waiver from standard Medicaid rules as a "demonstration project," and in January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services declined to renew that waiver for another year, citing numerous problems and lack of compliance with federal standards.
The current waiver is set to expire Dec. 31, and although Kansas has submitted a corrective action plan to address the earlier problems, CMS still has not acted on the application for renewal.
Sen. Kelly, the ranking Democrat on the Legislature's joint KanCare oversight committee, said she thinks that program has had mixed results.
"As I have said from the very, very beginning, I am not opposed to managed care, and I think we have seen some success cases," Kelly said. "Managed care has actually done what it's supposed to do, which is coordinate folks' care, keep costs down and keep people out of the emergency room. We've seen some success in that."
But Kelly said she also thinks there is a fundamental flaw in KanCare's design.
"I've always been opposed to putting our health care of our very neediest in the hands of for-profit companies," she said. "Because the only way to make money is to deny care, limit care."
On Wednesday last week, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing on Brownback's appointment, and while he faced some tough questions from Democrats on that panel, there was no indication that Democrats plan to filibuster his nomination.
If his nomination is allowed to go through, he could easily be confirmed before the end of the year, which would put Colyer in the governor's office for all of the 2018 legislative session.