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New Kansas governor faces skeptical lawmakers, schools fight

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican Jeff Colyer faces a skeptical GOP-controlled Legislature deeply divided over a court mandate to increase state spending on public schools as he prepares to take over as Kansas’ next governor.

Colyer, 57, the state’s longest-serving lieutenant governor, was scheduled to be sworn in as governor Wednesday afternoon. He is replacing GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who is stepping down to become U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Colyer said before the event that his inaugural speech will focus on broad themes about “what is special about Kansas,” rather than policy.

“We’ll be short and to the point, which is the way Kansans are,” he said.

The biggest task facing Colyer and legislators is responding to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in October that funding for public schools remains constitutionally inadequate, even with an increase approved last year.

Brownback proposed phasing in an additional $513 million increase over five years, relying only on the annual growth in state revenues to pay for it. The plan angered many Republicans, who viewed it as fiscally reckless.

Colyer promised a more open and approachable administration after Brownback was nominated by President Donald Trump last summer for the ambassador post. But lawmakers are waiting to see whether he breaks with Brownback’s policies or modifies the school funding plan.

He remained a loyal No. 2 during seven years as Brownback’s lieutenant governor, even as Kansas voters turned on Brownback because of the persistent budget problems that followed aggressive income tax cuts the governor championed in 2012 and 2013. Lawmakers last year rolled back most of the cuts.

Colyer is a Kansas City-area plastic surgeon who does both cosmetic and reconstructive procedures. He’s been associated with the International Medical Corps for three decades and has continued during regular medical relief missions as lieutenant governor.

He served two years in the Kansas House and another two years in the state Senate before being elected on Brownback’s ticket in 2010. They were re-elected in 2014.

Colyer made three $500,000 loans to Brownback’s and his re-election campaign in 2013 and 2014 that were highly unusual for their size and timing, with two paid back within days and the third over 16 months. Federal prosecutors ended a grand jury investigation in 2015 without plans for criminal charges.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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