Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Fighting Spirit Among Kansas Populists-- Meet Jim Sherow


Kansas is one of the reddest of the red states. In 2012, Obama only managed to get 38% of the vote there. He won only two counties in the entire state, Wyandotte (Kansas City) and Douglas (Lawrence). Earlier, Rick Santorum won the GOP primary with 51%-- with more than double the votes Romney got. There are no Democrats in their delegation to Congress and in the 40 member state Senate, there are only 9 Democrats. But only one of Kansas' congressional districts actually looks, on paper, impossible for a Democrat-- the first CD, the massive western two-thirds of the state, which includes Manhattan, Salina and Dodge City. Last cycle the Democrats ran candidates in the other 3 congressional districts but gave radical right sociopath Tim Huelskamp a free ride. KS-02, represented by Lynn Jenkins has a PVI of R+8. KS-02's (Kevin Yoder) PVI is R+6. And the Koch brother's Mike Pompeo has a nice safe R+14 district in KS-04. Those 3 relatively safe seats look dangerous for Republicans compared to KS-01, where Huelskamp is the congressman. The PVI is a startling R+23. There are only 17 worse districts in America for a Democrat to run in and most of them are in Texas, Utah, Georgia and Alabama and produce lunatic fringe caricatures like Louie Gohmert, Steve Scalise and Steve Stockman. The closest any Democrat has come in recent decades to winning in an R+23 district is Jim Matheson's R+16 district-- and the voters there thought they were electing his father, a former much-admirered governor from their childhoods.

Enter Jim Sherow, a courageous, idealistic fourth generation veteran and former mayor of Manhattan, who has just opened an exploratory committee to challenge Huelskamp this year. His great-grandparents homesteaded in the what is now the first district and he was born and raised there. He's been teaching at Kansas State since 1992, where he is the Kansas historian and he's written five books on issues related to water, agriculture, Kansas and High Plains topics. He first entered local politics in a successful fight to prevent a super-Walmart from being built in an inappropriate part of town and was elected to the city commission in April 2007, serving until last April. I asked Jim to introduce himself to DWT readers with a guest post:

Why The Farm Bill Is Crucial For Kansas-- And For The Rest Of America
by Jim Sherow

Tea Party darling, Congressman Tim Huelskamp, represents one of the largest farming districts in the nation, but promises to hold final passage of the farm bill hostage until the food stamp program is drastically cut. In September 2013 the House passed its own version of the bill and reduced food stamp funding by $40 billion over ten years. Huelskamp celebrated this drastic reduction, and several news sources quoted him saying: “I think most Americans don’t think you should be getting something for free, especially if you’re able bodied.” Yet Huelskamp’s brother in southwest Kansas received $1.6 million in federal farm subsidies from 1995 to 2011, and the congressman’s parents received $1.1 million in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2009. But even if we set aside this type of Congressional hypocrisy we’ve come to expect, the question still arises: Why do we need a farm bill in the first place? Here’s why.

Farming is unlike any other occupation. Farmers have never controlled crop prices, weather conditions, or the land values upon which they are taxed. An old quip among Kansans is that the state never needed to legalize gambling because it had farming. Some level of economic stability needs be in place in order to keep farmers in business and to insure the nation’s food supply. The key to a sensible farm bill is providing the right level of support to those farmers who are actually in need.

In addition to making sure farms are able to stay afloat, the farm bill is also supposed to provide nutritional support for Americans who need it the most. The food stamp program (aka SNAP, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) became part of the farm bill during President Eisenhower’s administration when representatives from farming districts recognized that they needed the political support from urban areas if they were to have any chance of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize farming. Food stamps aid many more urban folks than rural and go primarily to children, the disabled, and seniors. The program hardly results in “dependency” as the average adult recipient is employed and relies on food stamps for only about ten months.

Mr. Huelskamp sees himself as a fighter for smaller government (if any at all), and “free market” solutions to all of America’s economic woes. By all accounts Huelskamp is difficult to work with; so much so that Speaker of the House, John Boehner, removed him from the House Agricultural Committee in December 2012. For the first time in over a century, perhaps as long as there has been a House Agricultural Committee, Kansans find themselves without representation.

Boehner’s decision did not seem to dissuade Huelskamp, who retorted that Boehner’s move was a sign that “the GOP Establishment cannot handle disagreement.” Undeterred to stop government “waste,” Huelskamp went on to vote against the Senate version of the farm bill. His “principled” stance had nothing to do with giving undeserved subsidizes to large farmers and agro-business, (forget about being a true market purist), but because he believes SNAP is bloated with waste and encourages recipients to become lazy, shiftless people dependent upon governmental handouts. (Every system has abusers of course, but one wonders if Huelskamp knows that one in six Americans is food insecure.) Huelskamp helped push through the House $40 billion in reductions to SNAP over the next ten years. The different House and Senate bills resulted in a compromise to reduce nearly $9 billion in SNAP support over the next ten years. What are the odds that Huelskamp will support the compromise? Almost zero if he holds true to form.

The 2008 stimulus ended on November 1st , 2013, and the food stamp program in Kansas was reduced by $33 million affecting 317,000 Kansans. The current level of funding allows about a $1.40 a meal per person. And I am sure that everyone reading this blog can imagine what it would be like to cook a meal-- every meal-- for $1.40 a person. Not exactly generous, is it?

Prior to the current compromise, the House and Senate versions of the bill appeared to eliminate direct crop subsidies to farmers. This reform, however, led to other new “subsidies” protecting crop revenues. These subsidies are included in the current compromise between the House and Senate. Additionally, the current bill up for a vote includes increased crop insurance coverage with a price tag of $10 billion a year. While subsidies are part of the public record, payments in crop insurance are not.

I just recently visited with a farmer who profitably works several thousand acres. He is an excellent farmer who cares about the land, and takes sensible ecological approaches to his farming methods. He is debt free. He also received $60 thousand in subsidies last year, all part of the public record, and crop insurance payments in excess of $60k. He freely admits that in his case the subsidy, while nice, was probably not needed. Public watchdog Environmental Working Group noted that 26 policyholders received more than $1 million each to help pay crop insurance premiums in 2011 while another 10,000 farmers were paid more than $100,000 each. Yet you won’t hear Representative Huelskamp talking about the need to cut the bloat in revenue support and crop insurance.

Americans deserve better than the current version of the farm bill. Even my farmer friend is worried about the future of agriculture. How are new, young farmers without capital ever going to begin farming? With sons uninterested in continuing the family legacy, he will have to rely on a new farmer to take over in the future. He’s uncomfortable thinking about his land becoming part of a large corporate conglomeration, which is quite a strong possibility. He also understands, and is very supportive of the need to continue SNAP even above its current levels of funding. He knows that feeding hungry Americans and farm supports go hand in hand.

The current compromise of the farm bill is grossly inadequate because it largely ignores the fact that farming is rapidly changing. Many agree that newer, low acreage farming techniques near large metro areas are an important part of the future of farming. This farming is intensive, usually ecologically sound, and results in high quality (often organically produced) foods for urban consumption. Yet there is precious little in the current farm bill that supports this type of farming.

And finally, Congress’s is ignoring that the pumping of the Ogallala Aquifer cannot be indefinitely sustained. Hydrologists know, and as Mr. Huelskamp is well aware, that by 2070 the aquifer in western Kansas will no longer yield its water. This aquifer was produced by melting glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, and receives hardly any recharge. So tapping this source is akin to mining and as we have seen in many areas of the U.S. such as Appalachia, mining economics are very fragile.

Today the irrigated farming in the First District provides for a powerful economy of corn and hay production that feeds vast herds of cattle and mega meat processing plants in several western Kansas cities. Yet no one is preparing for that day when the water runs out. And there are already some counties where farmers have had to quit irrigating. There is an irrigator’s canary in the Big First and authors of the farm bill should be listening to it in order to recapitalize the methods of farming and preserve their way of life for posterity.

The key to a workable and successful farm bill is in providing the right level of support to those farmers who actually are in need and anticipating the fast approaching changes in agriculture. It’s rather akin to making sure that SNAP adequately addresses those children and families that need it the most. It’s a shame that Representative Huelskamp, who should know better, doesn’t recognize this connection.

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