TOPEKA — It’s not exactly what you might expect from the city’s top promoter of local business.
“BOEING TO CLOSE WICHITA PLANT BY 2013 … ELIMINATING 2,160 LOCAL JOBS." And “The Kansas economy has been struggling lately … Last year, Kansas ranked last in the nation for private sector job growth. Dead Last."
But that’s the message the Wichita Metro Chamber Political Action Committee is spreading across the region in an effort to sway voters to pick three Republican challengers over incumbent Republican senators in the Aug. 7 primary.
The postcards landing in voters’ mailboxes this week highlight Boeing’s departure while promoting candidates endorsed by the chamber’s political arm.
Among the candidates promoted in the ads: Gary Mason, a Wichita businessman whose business has contributed to the chamber’s PAC and who is running against Sen. Carolyn McGinn; Rep. Dan Kerschen, who is running against Sen. Dick Kelsey; and Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell, a small-government advocate challenging Sen. Jean Schodorf.
All six candidates are Republicans. McGinn, Schodorf, Kerschen and Kelsey have all received political donations from the chamber’s PAC in the past.
This year, the chamber’s PAC has sided with candidates who seek to shift control of the Senate from moderate Republicans who have challenged some of Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposals to more conservative Republicans who would be more likely to support Brownback’s agenda.
Chamber lobbyist Jason Watkins said the chamber’s PAC doesn’t back one political label over another; it wants to promote candidates it believes are more likely to do things that promote economic growth and job creation.
Among the chamber’s stated goals are advocating for a better business climate and electing “pro-business candidates.”
Schodorf, R-Wichita, said she thinks the chamber’s political shift is more about a few big businesses controlling the chamber’s political arm and the chamber’s continued bristling over abruptly losing Boeing, which was a chamber PAC contributor until last year and a member of the chamber.
“I think they’re ashamed that they were taken off guard and they want to blame somebody else," she said.
Schodorf said the Legislature has delivered on the chamber’s legislative wish lists. But she said the chamber began criticizing lawmakers who supported a temporary 1-cent sales-tax increase in the face of huge budget deficits after the national economy nosedived in 2008.
“There’s been a change of philosophy," she said of the chamber. “They’re following the state chamber. It’s not helping Wichita and it’s not helping bring jobs to Wichita. They’ve lost their focus and gone off into this political arena."
The Boeing departure
Watkins said the PAC’s decision to highlight Boeing’s January departure announcement comes down to analyzing why it happened.
The ad says Boeing left because “Wichita’s costs are uncompetitive.” That’s a partial quote based on a statement made to an Eagle reporter by Mark Bass, vice president and general manager for Boeing Defense Systems’ Maintenance, Modifications & Upgrades.
Boeing’s statement on the day it announced it was moving operations to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Puget Sound, Wash., said the decision was made after a “thorough study of the current and future market environment and our ability to remain competitive."
But Boeing said it was more than Wichita’s costs.
“Over the past five years, contracts in Wichita have matured, programs have come to a close or are winding down, and the site does not have enough sustainable business on the horizon to create an affordable cost structure to maintain and win new business."
Costs are higher at the Wichita site, which has 97 buildings and covers nearly 2 million square feet, Bass said at the time. He said it’s 70 percent more expensive to do work in Wichita than in San Antonio, considering wages, infrastructure costs and the cost of doing business.
The decision came after a months-long battle by Kansas politicians to secure a huge military contract for the company, which said the contract would bring jobs to Kansas in return.
Watkins said Topeka has failed to dramatically improve the business climate for years and has only recently made strong progress with this year’s income tax plan, which eliminates non-wage income tax for a variety of businesses and lowers rates for taxpayers.
He said the chamber isn’t trying to highlight a sad story so much as it is trying to promote ways to prevent such problems.
“I think it’d be insulting to the electorate to not talk about where we are and how to fix it," Watkins said. “You’re not going to fix your problems if you don’t recognize them and go out and address them."
A ‘new path’?
The ads say O’Donnell, Mason and Kerschen want to take Kansas on “a new path," and that they support lower taxes and less regulation and will stop wasteful spending in Topeka.
Kelsey, R-Goddard, said the Kansas Legislature has done everything Boeing has asked for, and that the chamber was also helpless when the company abruptly announced it would leave. He noted that the income-tax reduction bill signed into law this year doesn’t affect corporate taxes paid by Boeing anyway and said a bill he filed and promoted would have reduced corporate income tax rates.
He said the chamber has backed him in every previous election and that he has no idea what changed.
“They didn’t have the courtesy to even have a discussion," he said. “I consider that the height of ingratitude."
McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said the state has consistently supported initiatives to help the aviation industry. She noted that the chamber PAC’s ad keys on “Wichita’s costs."
“Wouldn’t that be a question for Wichita’s elected officials?" she asked.
McGinn said she has consistently backed chamber initiatives, including carrying the Affordable Airfares bill the first year it was approved and continuing to secure funding to keep airfares low as chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
McGinn and Schodorf said they believe the chamber may have misdirected its political ads because some people in McGinn’s District 31 received both an ad in favor of Mason, who is running in the 31st, and O’Donnell, who is running farther south in District 25.
Schodorf said neither she nor her neighbors got the ads.
Watkins said he has heard reports that the O’Donnell ads landed in the wrong district, and he said the chamber is talking with its vendor about it.
The chamber PAC’s ads arrived in mailboxes days before it announced its endorsements in primary contests across south-central Kansas and a few days before advance voting ballots are mailed out.
In its most recent filing on Jan. 10, the chamber PAC had about $17,000. Reports on fundraising and spending since Jan. 10 will become public July 30, after advance voting begins and a week and a day before the Aug. 7 primary.
Among contributors listed in the chamber PAC’s most recent filing is iSi Environmental Services, which gave $500 on Sept. 22 last year and another $500 on Dec. 16. The company is owned by Mason, who is on the chamber’s board.
On Dec. 20, the chamber gave Mason’s campaign $1,000.
The chamber’s PAC also gave $1,000 to Wichita Republican Rep. Brenda Landwehr when she was planning to run against Schodorf. Landwehr withdrew her bid after judges redrew political boundaries, leaving her outside Schodorf’s district.
In 2008 when senators were last up for elections, the chamber’s PAC, then called Wichita Area Business PAC, gave $2,000 to McGinn, $1,000 to Schodorf, $1,000 to Kelsey and $500 to the campaign of Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.
They were among dozens, including a few Democrats, to receive campaign contributions from the PAC during that cycle.