Opinion Columns & Blogs

H. Edward Flentje: Turn attention to growth clusters

Gov. Sam Brownback has hit the ground running with a "pro-growth" economic plan and a focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. He acted quickly to coordinate state agencies that have direct impact on the state's economy but has yet to offer clarity as to how state executives will work with local leaders who deal with growth issues every day.

For starters, the Brownback economic plan sends a mixed message; it argues against state policies that target incentives to the lucky few but then proceeds to target individuals moving to "rural opportunity zones" for special income-tax breaks and payoffs of student loans.

Brownback proposed that 44 counties losing at least 10 percent of their population since 2000 and having fewer than 10,000 people be favored. State lawmakers added four more counties and quickly enacted the governor's proposal.

As Brownback's plan acknowledges, any state action that tries to pick winners by arbitrary criteria becomes tricky. Sixty-eight Kansas counties peaked in population 80 to 120 years ago — in the five decades of 1890 through 1930 — and most have experienced steady declines since. Today, more than half of the state's 105 counties have fewer than 10 people per square mile.

The smaller rural counties targeted by Brownback face the fiercest headwinds — the long-standing and continuing advance of agricultural technology and, more recently, the force of global economics, among other factors — and will likely be aided modestly if at all by Brownback's incentives. But give the governor credit for trying something other than rhetorical flourishes or task forces offered by his predecessors to address the issue.

Before rural officials warm in the glow of state favor, however, they should quickly realize that the impact of Brownback's budgetary actions will be harsh. Rural Kansas relies much more heavily on state and federal assistance, and the cost of delivering essential public services to sparsely populated areas is substantially higher. Brownback's preferred counties will be hammered disproportionately by his reductions in school finance and social services, and the limited amenities available in these areas will be further diminished by his cuts in public broadcasting and the arts, among other programs.

The growing counties of Kansas receive no mention in Brownback's economic plan. Twenty-seven counties are indeed growing, having experienced peak populations in either 2000 or 2010. With a couple of exceptions, these expanding counties are clustered in and around the metropolitan areas of Kansas City and Wichita, the boom associated with the return of the Big Red One to Fort Riley, and the red-meat industry in the southwest corner of Kansas. These regions compete nationally and globally within their respective spheres and represent economic engines of the state.

Local officials in these growth clusters are breaking with tradition, building relationships across political boundaries and beginning to think regionally on growth issues. The Brownback administration should take advantage of this opening, turn its attention to the growing regions of the state, and engage with local leadership.

Both parties share an interest in assuring that public investments, for example, in transportation, water resources and workforce, among many others, contribute to the long-term competitiveness and sustainability of these regions and of the state.