Editorial: Don’t follow Brownback’s lead

As Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer prepares to take over as Kansas governor, one can only hope he is more pragmatic than his predecessor.

Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to be confirmed soon as the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. When he does, the largely unknown Colyer will move in to the governor’s role and preside over the 2018 legislative session.

Colyer is Kansas’ longest serving lieutenant governor, having served almost seven years. Prior to agreeing to run with Brownback, Colyer served in the Kansas House for one term and the state Senate for two years. Suffice to say, there isn’t a lot to go on in terms of what to expect from the new governor.

The one issue that Colyer, a plastic surgeon, has been out front on is health care policy. He is the architect of the state’s privatized Medicaid program, KanCare. Like Brownback, Colyer has been a critic of the Affordable Care Act, the health care legislation approved by the Obama Administration. And like Brownback, Colyer has opposed the expansion of Medicaid. The ACA allows for states to expand Medicaid eligibility, most at the federal government’s expense, to those younger than 65 whose family income is no more than 133 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

Brownback vetoed a bipartisan Medicaid expansion bill during the 2017 session and all indications are that Colyer will take a similarly hard line against expansion.

But Colyer would be wise to carve out his own approach going forward, especially if he hopes to win the governor’s election next year. Fair or not, Colyer is largely seen as an extension of Brownback, who is leaving the governor’s mansion as one of the most unpopular governors in the country. According to Morning Consult’s July governor rankings, only Chris Christie of New Jersey had higher disapproval numbers than Brownback.

Colyer will face an increasingly crowded Republican field in the race for governor. Those who have announced they are running include Secretary of State Kris Kobach; Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer; former Sen. Jim Barnett; Wichita businessman Willis “Wink” Hartman; former Rep. Mark Hutton; and former Rep. Ed O’Malley.

Colyer has a built-in advantage over the field because he will be in the role when the election is held. But if he doesn’t distinguish himself from Brownback, being the governor will quickly turn into a disadvantage for Colyer.

For the first time in a long time, legislators from both sides of the aisle showed a willingness to work together to get legislation passed. But they did so without the help of the governor, whose activity during the session basically boiled down to vetoing bipartisan legislation.

Colyer has a choice of what kind of governor he will be: a pragmatist willing to work toward compromise to move Kansas forward or a rigid ideologue like his predecessor. His decision likely will determine how long his gubernatorial tenure lasts.