POLITICS
04/04/2013 07:30 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2013

Sequestration Emerges As New Front In Kansas GOP Civil War

WASHINGTON -- As across-the-board federal budget cuts ripple across the country, local officials in Kansas have been left scrambling to fund air traffic control towers and educational programs that affect students from kindergarten through community college.

The state is hardly unique. It's one of many shutting air traffic control towers, gutting Head Start preschool services and making adjustments as U.S. budget cuts become reality. What sets Kansas apart is that it's home to some of the sequester's strongest backers. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) referred to sequestration as "the first significant tea party victory" in Washington, while Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas)said the cuts were "a home run for America."

Kansas has served as a microcosm of conflicting political incentives before. The author Tom Franks spotlighted his state in the book What's the Matter with Kansas? which detailed "how conservatives won the heart of America" by recruiting Kansans to vote against their own economic interests. The same dynamic is taking place with the sequester.

Kansas takes approximately $3 billion from the federal government each year, relying on the money for health care, education and transportation expenses. Like other Republican-leaning states, it receives more U.S. funds than its residents pay in federal taxes. Its members of Congress, however, have been elected on pledges to reduce the federal deficit simply by cutting government spending while lowering taxes.

Neither Huelskamp nor Pompeo saw sequestration as onerous. They embraced it. Longtime Kansas political observers complimented their balancing acts.

"Much of what he's done has gone against the conventional wisdom of, 'You have to bring home the pork in order to keep being re-elected in American politics,'" Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, said of Huelskamp. "He's been pretty consistent about [being] against spending or projects, even if it takes away money from my district. In a sense you can say that's actually rare in American politics."

Beatty pointed out that Huelskamp survived concerns back home that he allowed his conservative ideology to get in the way of serving in a politically advantageous position last year, when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) kicked him off the agriculture committee. It was the first time in state history that a representative of Kansas' 1st Congressional District didn't sit on the committee.

"That's rather remarkable," Beatty said. "In a sense, he may seem emboldened to continue to go against the grain." Pompeo shows similar tendencies to stick to his principles regardless of the impact on his district, Beatty said. "Kansas voters at least philosophically have come to dislike this idea of big government so much that they're willing to chance the consequences," Beatty said.

That philosophical shift largely mirrors the intramural Republican politics that have dominated Kansas and its elections in recent years. Moderate Republicans, once in control of the state Senate, found themselves at odds with the conservative state House -- and Gov. Sam Brownback, a tea party favorite who began his term in 2011 by eliminating the state's art funding amid widespread protests. The moderates faced bitter challenges from conservative candidates in 2012 and ultimately lost, unable to compete with the outside interest groups that poured $3 million to $8 million into conservative campaigns.

The upheaval was enough for outgoing state Senate President Steve Morris (R-Hugoton) to declare Kansas an "ultra-conservative utopia." Former three-term state Sen. Jean Schodorf, of Wichita, switched parties and become a Democrat.

Schodorf interacted with both Huelskamp and Pompeo during her tenure. She worked with Huelskamp in the state legislature, and lost a 2010 congressional bid, when Pompeo bested her in the GOP primary. The ambivalence of Huelskamp and Pompeo toward sequestration is unsurprising, Schodorf said in an interview with HuffPost, recalling both men as fixated on cutting the federal budget.

"I'm watching it from a distance now, and every bill that comes up is a new nuance of how they are thinking -- no government, little government, or as less government as possible," Schodorf said. Pompeo "ran to cut spending on everything and to cut the deficit," Schodorf added. "And he's never changed his rhetoric from when he was elected … nor has Huelskamp. There's no compromise, even when programs are hurt or Kansans are hurt."

A month into sequestration, Kansans are now beginning to bear the pain of austerity. Slashed education funding is a particularly big blow, given that the issue was contentious even before sequestration kicked in. A court ruled earlier this year that Kansas had failed to meet its constitutionally defined obligation to fund state education requirements. Now, the state Department of Education estimates a loss of $59 million in federal funds in the 2013-2014 school year, just as the state was looking to get its education funding back on track.

The cuts will also cost the federal courthouses in Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City $750,000 this year -- 14 percent of their budget -- according to the court clerk in Topeka. Judge Julia Gibbons, budget committee chairwoman for the U.S. Judicial Conference, said that as a result, some criminal cases in Kansas won’t be prosecuted this year, and Kansans who face federal charges may wait longer to see a court-appointed lawyer.

But most of the local attention has gone toward the closure of seven air traffic control towers, a consequence of the $600 million funding reduction for the Federal Aviation Administration this fiscal year. The towers, according to local officials, are vital to airport safety and revenue. Many of the rural communities in Kansas depend on small airports to boost their economy and business. In the case of the Manhattan Regional Airport, city officials were so concerned that they actually stepped in to take over funding for their local tower. They conceded they didn't know how they'll pay for it.

Shutting down regional control towers was one impact of sequestration severe enough to actually elicit a response from Huelskamp and Pompeo. The two joined Republican Sen. Jerry Moran and other lawmakers in signing a letter opposing their closure.

"The Administration's decision to shutter these air traffic control towers is short-sighted and dangerous," the letter reads. "Closing control towers is equivalent to removing stop lights and stop signs from our roads."

Huelskamp and Pompeo did not return requests for comment.

Unlike Huelskamp and Pompeo, Moran never likened sequestration to a victory. In fact, the senator said the cuts were "irresponsible" and a "poor way" to lower the national debt. But Moran's response to the sequester showed why the political demands of the Republican Party make it difficult to restore the cuts states like his rely on.

Moran didn't focus his attention solely on air tower closures. He proposed two amendments that stood out in regards to the Senate government funding bill. In addition to trying to reallocate FAA funding to protect contract tower program, he offered an amendment for the restoration of White House tours. It was a mixed message -- on the one hand acknowledging that the cuts were hurting his district, on the other offering a piece of red meat for the conservative base. And it likely didn't help his cause. Suggesting that the Obama administration was acting out of political revenge makes it harder to get the administration to help his state with a sequester replacement.

Moran didn't return a request for comment.

Jason Probst, a news editor at Kansas' Hutchinson News who has been critical with the state's political class, offered his take on why even the more sensible lawmakers from Kansas feel pressured to show off their conservative streaks.

"Kansas is a conservative state. There's no doubt about that," Probst told HuffPost. "And the real conservative rhetoric is easily digestible. You can turn something into a talking point, or it fits onto a flyer very easily. It's harder for a moderate in this state to explain their positions if they can't be boiled down to a talking point."

Beatty said the civil war between Kansas conservatives represents the biggest challenge its government has faced over the last decade.

"It is the epicenter of Kansas politics," Beatty said. "And the information pushing the anti-government message is right now so disproportionate to the other side that it also plays a huge factor in whether things can change."

Schodorf said she hoped the people would soon recognize how the state's shift toward "ultra-conservatism happened to the detriment of Kansas."

"Hopefully there will be a swell of people against what's happening in Topeka -- an uprising, hopefully by 2014," Schodorf said. "People know we have to do something. They just don't know what to do."

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