TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Jeff Colyer promised Wednesday to try to be the "most approachable" governor in Kansas history while also using his first major policy speech to push a major anti-abortion proposal onto the Legislature's agenda.
The new governor told lawmakers that he will issue executive orders to make state government more open and establish a task force to develop a comprehensive response to the national "scourge" of addiction to opioids and other drugs. Colyer also made a point of praising legislators in both parties by name.
Several top Republican lawmakers said they believe they have more flexibility in responding to a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to increase spending on public schools after his address to a joint session of the House and Senate. Colyer avoided setting a spending target and told lawmakers he opposes raising taxes.
But Colyer also reiterated his strong opposition to abortion, calling for an amendment to the Kansas Constitution to protect existing restrictions from being overturned by the state's courts. Like his predecessor, GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, he compared abortion to slavery and declared Kansas "a pro-life state."
"Kansas was founded on the ideal that all people have value," Colyer told legislators.
Colyer took office last week after Brownback resigned to become U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The new governor has consciously tried to set a different tone, even to the point of rearranging his office suite and changing the background color on the office's official website from blue to red.
"I want to you to know that I want to be the most approachable governor in Kansas history," he told legislators.
Yet, in proposing a constitutional change on abortion, Colyer appealed most to social conservatives, whose support could be important as he seeks a full, four-year term this year. He faces a strong challenge on the right in the Republican primary from Secretary of State Kris Kobach, formerly the vice chairman of President Donald Trump's now-disbanded commission on voter fraud.
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who also is running for governor, said Colyer's comments on abortion helped show the new governor hasn't broken with the old.
"He picked the most divisive issue to highlight in the heart of his speech," Ward said.
The Legislature has had solid anti-abortion majorities in both chambers for years, but a constitutional change needs two-thirds majorities to go on the ballot for voters' approval.
"I believe the majority of Kansans believe in women's opportunities to make independent decisions unfettered by governmental intervention," said state Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who supports abortion rights.
Colyer's call for an amendment is a response to a case before the Kansas Supreme Court. Two abortion providers are challenging a 2015 state law that enacted the nation's first ban on a common second-trimester procedure that critics call "dismemberment abortion."
A trial court judge ruled that the state constitution protects abortion rights independently of the U.S. Constitution. If that decision stands, it would allow state courts could strike down restrictions that the federal courts permit.
"This is violence against the very basic facts, and this cannot stand," Colyer declared, with the Supreme Court justices watching in the House chamber.
Before Colyer's address, many lawmakers' biggest concern was what the new governor would say about school funding, not abortion. The state Supreme Court ruled in October the state's education funding of more than $4 billion a year is insufficient under the state constitution, even with an increase last year.
Brownback proposed phasing in an additional $513 million increase in aid over five years, relying only on growth in state revenues to cover the cost. Many Republican legislators considered the plan financially reckless.
Colyer said called for a "phased-in approach that doesn't increase the tax burden on Kansas families." Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, said Colyer backed away from Brownback's plan.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, added: "I think he's giving a lot more flexibility in how to handle the court ruling."
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