Kansas is changing

Many Kansans like change about as much as they like property taxes, federal mandates, steak tartare and Mizzou. But like it or not, the first 2010 U.S. Census numbers confirm that Kansas is getting more diverse ethnically and more urban and suburban, in the course of having grown 6 percent since 2000. The key for Kansas will be whether its leaders respond to the population trends creatively, punitively or at all.

The big news in the numbers:

-- Of 105 counties in Kansas, 77 shrank in population during the past decade, 23 by more than 10 percent.

-- Hispanics are now the state’s largest minority, seeing their numbers grow by 59 percent to about 10.5 percent of the population. There also were significant gains among Asians and those who identify themselves as multiracial.

-- While Wichita remains by far the state’s largest city (up by 38,000, or 11 percent), Sedgwick County at last has been eclipsed by Johnson County, which grew by 93,000 residents, or 21 percent (to Sedgwick County’s 10 percent).

Lawmakers will have to account for the new population shifts in redistricting. Kansas won’t lose another congressional seat — this time — but the “Big First” may get even bigger, and western Kansas is sure to lose more legislative clout to northeast Kansas.

Beyond redistricting, Gov. Sam Brownback deserves credit for getting state lawmakers started on a debate about how to counter rural counties’ declining population and get Kansas really growing again.

One thing that might help is his Senate-passed proposal to waive state income tax for five years for out-of-staters who relocate to 50 of the most population-challenged counties. Unlike some of his conservative Republican brethren, Brownback also recognizes that the state is in a contest for jobs that cannot be won with lower taxes and less regulation alone. His proposal for a “deal closer” fund, perhaps as large as $100 million in five years, reflects the need to be flexible and, when necessary, generous in responding to businesses seeking reasons to come to Kansas.

Brownback also will be key in preventing any legislative overreactions to illegal immigration or other actions that could be interpreted by potential businesses and workers as an unwelcome mat. Kansas does not need to clone Arizona’s costly, controversial law requiring police officers to check the citizenship status of people they stop and suspect of being illegal immigrants. Nor should it repeal the 2004 law allowing eligible children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at the state’s colleges and universities.

As they handle the budget crisis, Brownback and the Legislature’s GOP leaders also must take pains not to permanently damage the powerful recruiting tools of public education and quality of life. What the state lacks in dramatic topography and big-city excitement it must try to make up for in excellent schools and unique cultural outlets and attractions. And much of Kansas’ fight to keep and attract the best and brightest will be waged at its three research universities, which also must be well-supported.

Some recent news bodes well for Wichita and Kansas in the next round of census taking, including Boeing’s air-tanker contract and the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility planned for Manhattan. But the latest numbers hold some hard truths and challenges for Kansas, if only it will accept them.