Just as people leave small towns for a variety of reasons, repopulating rural Kansas will take a variety of tools and creative ideas. Out-of-staters aren’t going to jump at the chance to become rural Kansans solely on the basis of a state income-tax break. They are going to want quality jobs, good schools, affordable housing, accessible services, fun things to do — all the elements of a solid and promising future for themselves and their families.
Under Gov. Sam Brownback’s new “rural opportunity zones” program, non-Kansans who move to one of 50 designated counties can be exempt from paying state income tax for up to five years (an average of about $1,800 a year). In certain cases and counties, new rural residents also can qualify to have 20 percent of their student loans (up to $3,000 a year for five years) paid by the county and state.
Those are nice perks for the people who find out about them and qualify — though it’s too bad the income-tax exemption doesn’t help somebody already in an urban Kansas county who’d like to try country living.
And some eligible counties have been hesitant to commit their own dollars to the student-loan payment program, in part because experience has taught them that the state doesn’t always finish what it starts.
How rural counties fare going forward also will depend on how the Brownback administration deploys other economic development tools, such as the Commerce Department’s new “deal-closer” fund. The administration’s jobs-related coups so far directly benefit more urban areas, including Newton with the New Millennium Wind Energy facility.
The rural opportunity zones program also risks being undermined by other things the state is doing under Brownback’s leadership, including cutting per-pupil K-12 funding, shuttering state agencies’ regional offices, and axing state arts funding. A community with a school on the brink of closing doesn’t exactly have the welcome mat out.
Plus, the fortunes of rural Kansas are riding on the results of Brownback’s planned reforms of taxation and school finance. Suspicions are that the latter, for example, will tilt the funding formula in favor of rich districts such as those in Johnson County.
Then there is the challenge of the prolonged drought afflicting so much of western Kansas, which Brownback will focus on during a Thursday summit in Colby on the future of the Ogallala Aquifer. Any new rural economy will need certain access to water. Of course, if any governor can do something about western Kansas’ water supply, it may be Brownback, a former state agriculture secretary.
If Brownback wants to be viewed as a champion of rural counties, he also could better explain his voluntary wind-farm ban in the Flint Hills, which some farmers and ranchers around the state see as threatening rural economic development.
In short, Brownback’s rural opportunity zones program can’t hurt, but it isn’t going to buck the state’s alarming census trends all by itself.