TOPEKA, Kan. — A court mandate to boost spending on Kansas public schools and problems in state prisons, mental hospitals and child foster care confront Republican Jeff Colyer as he takes the Kansas governor’s office and navigates tricky political currents.
The Republican is being elevated from lieutenant governor because of departing GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s appointment by President Donald Trump as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Here are some of the issues Colyer will quickly face:
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that school funding is unconstitutionally inadequate, even after a new law phased in a $293 million increase over two years to boost it to $4.3 billion.
Brownback proposed phasing in an additional $513 million increase in funding over five years. His proposal angered top Republicans because the plan would rely on revenue growth to cover the cost, and many lawmakers don’t believe it’s sustainable.
Kansas prisons were roiled by disturbances last summer that included a riot at a low-security facility in Norton in northwestern Kansas. Legislators saw staffing shortages tied to low pay as a key reason. Brownback in August ordered immediate pay raises for corrections officers, and lawmakers must consider how to sustain them into the future.
Colyer’s administration also inherits a project in which Tennessee-based Core Civic Inc., the nation’s largest private-prison operator, will build a new state prison in Lansing to replace the oldest and largest one there. The state will buy the new prison over 20 years through a lease with the company costing a total of $362 million.
The Department for Aging and Disability Services is pursuing a plan to have a private company build a new mental hospital in Osawatomie and operate it for the state. The existing state hospital there lost its federal certification in December 2015 but regained it for a 60-bed unit after two years.
The federal government also threatened last fall to decertify a unit at the state mental hospital in Larned in western Kansas but backed off after the state embarked on improvements.
The state’s services for abused and neglected children have come under increasing scrutiny because of high-profile child deaths in recent years and a scathing state audit last year. A legislative task force continues to examine the child welfare system.
Conservative Republicans Brownback and Colyer have opposed expanding the state’s Medicaid program to cover as many as 180,000 more adults as encouraged by the federal Affordable Care Act.
But bipartisan support for the idea grew in the Legislature after elections in 2016 ousted two dozen conservative lawmakers from office, and supporters expect to push again.
Brownback’s decline in popularity amid the state’s ongoing budget woes have left Republicans fractured and created a wide open governor’s race in 2018.
Colyer has committed to running for a full term but could find himself in a field of a dozen candidates in the GOP primary. They’re led by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has a solid base on the right and is promising to be an even more aggressive conservative than Brownback.
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