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Friends facing each other in campaign

8/5/2012

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's like boxing with feather-filled gloves.

That's why both Reps. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, and Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, are loathe to say anything unkind about each other.

For two years, they were comrades in the Kansas Legislature, hailing from far northwest Kansas.

All that changed when a panel of three federal judges upset the apple cart and threw Cassidy and Billinger into the same district, the 120th, encompassing all of Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Sherman and Wallace counties and the northwest quarter of Thomas County, including the city of Colby.

"It's hard for me to get enthusiastic about running against a friend," Billinger said of the campaign he is waging against Cassidy.

Cassidy said he and Billinger represent some of the same ideals.

But they both forge ahead, ready for one of them to return to Topeka.

"It's been fun," Cassidy said of his time in the Legislature and on the road campaigning. "I enjoy campaigning. I like to meet people."

His favorite side of representing northwest Kansas, he said, is helping people.

"That's my favorite part, solving problems," he said.

Billinger said he's been well received in new areas of the 120th District, even though he marvels at how Colby and northwest Thomas County was simply carved out and tossed into the new district.

He's been going door-to-door, and taking in Kiwanis and Rotary meetings.

"We're very similar," Billinger said of his and Cassidy's voting records.

Billinger relies on his strengths as a longtime business owner and farmer as in looking forward to returning to Topeka.

Cassidy points to his membership on the powerful House Appropriations Committee -- the only one west of Riley County -- and background in education, especially school finance, as among his strengths.

"I do believe in rural education and anything west of Salina is rural education," he said.

Cassidy said he's been told he'll remain on Appropriations.

"I've been told I'll be an education chairman," he said.

Billinger's pushing for an amendment to the heralded Rural Opportunity Zone program that would let people currently collecting unemployment in high-unemployment counties to move and take a job in a county where population declines have been high and avoid paying income taxes for three years.

Someone earning $50,000 a year would have a tax liability of about $1,500, he said, compared to collecting unemployment, medical and food benefits of about $2,000 a month.

The state would make virtually everything back in the first few months.

He points to Sheridan County as a prime example, where unemployment is so low effectively anyone who wants to work is working.

Still, he said, the county has three jobs open, all of which include health insurance and other benefits.

"They can't get anyone to apply for the jobs," Billinger said.