TOPEKA, Kan. — After Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s nomination this summer to an ambassador’s post, the fellow Republican destined to succeed him as governor ducked policy questions by declaring, “There’s one governor at a time.”
Four months later, some people in Kansas think they have two governors.
Brownback still holds the office as he waits for a Senate vote on his appointment. But he’s backing away from his Kansas duties while Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer is stepping up.
As governor-in-waiting, Colyer is putting together a proposal for the next state budget. He’s appointed one Cabinet member and is set to name another.
It was Colyer — not Brownback — who spoke Wednesday at aircraft manufacturer Sprint Aerosystem’s announcement of a $1 billion, 1,000-job expansion in Wichita and then tweeted about it, taking on a role the governor has in the past. Brownback, meanwhile, lit the Statehouse’s Christmas tree Wednesday evening.
All of it has many legislators scratching their heads about who’s in charge.
“I can’t really pick up the phone and get any real decisive answers to anything in particular,” said Senate budget committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Wichita-area Republican.
Legislators don’t yet know how much Colyer will differ from Brownback on issues big and small. They’ve started drafting a response to a state Supreme Court order demanding more money for public schools — something that could take a tax increase — without any solid cues.
State Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, called the situation “super-strange” and said he doesn’t know whether to approach Brownback or Colyer about issues.
“Is the handoff complete?” Claeys said. “I have no idea.”
The informal arrangement between Brownback and Colyer is unprecedented for Kansas, at least in recent memory. Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in Kansas run as a team, but the governor has always been the boss.
Colyer insisted Wednesday that’s still the case, even with the lieutenant governor’s higher visibility and Cabinet selections.
“Sam is running the show on a day-to-day basis,” Colyer said after the Wichita event.
In talking to reporters after the Christmas tree lighting, Brownback rejected a description of the arrangement as a “co-governorship.”
“We’re really trying to do this more like a relay race, so that you’ve got continued momentum moving on forward,” he said. “And that’s what can seem, I think, complicated to people.”
President Donald Trump nominated Brownback as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the end of July. State officials had hoped for a Senate vote in October.
The last time a governor left office early was 2009, when Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was nominated as U.S. health and human services secretary. She invited Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson into important meetings but remained fully in charge during the six weeks she waited for her Senate vote.
Sebelius said the White House pushed her to fly to Washington as the Senate was debating her nomination. So, making sure she had a witness, she left a letter on her Statehouse desk saying that if she was confirmed, she resigned. The vote came when she was in the air.
Earlier this year, in Iowa and South Carolina, Republican Govs. Terry Branstad and Nikki Haley remained fully in charge until they were confirmed as ambassadors to China and the United Nations, respectively.
Sebelius said Brownback “seems to have chosen not to act as governor and not to resign.”
“If he doesn’t want to act as governor, then he should resign,” she said.
Brownback was still making judicial appointments this week. Even if Colyer is filling the two Cabinet spots, Brownback is formally signing off.
Some Republican legislators said it’s reasonable for Brownback to let Colyer make important decisions. After all, Colyer will have to live with them.
“He’s always been part of the decision-making process,” said Budget Director Shawn Sullivan. “The difference is this year we’ve had more briefings with him.”
Colyer, 57, is a plastic surgeon who still has found time to go on international medical relief missions. He’s a former legislator and the longest-serving lieutenant governor in state history. His biggest impact on policy has been — at Brownback’s direction — guiding the privatization of the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the needy.
The 61-year-old Brownback is unpopular as he prepares to leave after nearly seven years in office. Voters soured last year on big income tax cuts he championed in 2012 and 2013 because persistent budget problems followed. The GOP-controlled Legislature rolled back most of the tax cuts earlier this year to help balance the state budget.
Colyer is running for a full, four-year term as governor in 2018. Some supporters expect him to demonstrate his leadership chops by distancing himself from Brownback.
Still, Colyer has been careful to remain loyal in public even as he takes on some of the governor’s duties.
“It’s definitely weird,” said state Sen. Rob Olson, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican.
Also contributing were Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas; Barbara Rodriguez in Des Moines, Iowa, and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina.