Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, is on a new committee in the Kansas Legislature — a Rural Revitalization Committee.
“That is a really interesting committee ... I am glad to be put on it” Hodge said. “... It shows that rural towns are in big trouble unless we do something for them.”
During the committee's first week Matthew R. Sanderson, Randall C. Hill distinguished professor of sociology, anthropology, and social work and professor of sociology, at Kansas State University, provided testimony on demographic trends in rural Kansas.
Sanderson's presentation highlighted trends in fertility, mortality and migration in rural Kansas, focusing especially on the 2010-2017 period. According to Sanderson, rural Kansas continues to confront significant challenges with declining birth rates, higher death rates and ongoing aging of the population, resulting in continued losses of the working age population, age 25-64. These trends have accelerated since 2010, making rural revitalization a more urgent challenge.
Sanderson did give two areas for optimism: slight growth in the young adult populations, aged 20-40, and foreign-born immigration, which continues to support population growth in rural Kansas, and Kansas more broadly. Projections indicate that retaining young adults and attracting immigrants, both domestic and international, to Kansas will be essential to sustaining rural Kansas communities.
“If we do not do anything for them, they will continue to struggle,” Hodge said. “They are basically one sewer line break away from putting their property tax into the zone that no one can afford to pay.”
The committee has not brought forward any legislation at this time. Right now it meets daily.
The Committee on Rural Revitalization is a standing committee formed this legislative session. The intention is to address issues tied to depopulation of rural Kansas communities including health care, broadband availability, sustainability of water resources, transportation networks and access to agricultural markets.
The committee will also evaluate economic incentives such as the Rural Opportunity Zones to determine effectiveness and gaps in tax programs that attract business growth.
The 17 member committee is chaired by Rep. Don Hineman Hineman, a Dighton Republican who served the past two years as House majority leader, told The Topeka Capital-Journal the list of issues was long and there would be no overnight solutions. Rep. Adam Smith, R-Weskan, a third-generation farmer and rancher, will serve as vice chairman.
“I view it as pretty opened ended on subject matter,” Hineman said. “Rural revitalization has many facets.”
He said the committee also could look into economic development incentives, including the Rural Opportunity Zone initiative that relies on tax breaks to attract young professions to the rural counties.
“Another really pressing Kansas issue is workforce housing,” Hineman said. “It’s really a constraint on business expansion.”
He was chosen for the job by House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe resident who grew up in Meade in southwest Kansas.
The move follows a 2018 election cycle in which House and Senate leadership drifted toward urban centers. The 2020 Census is expected to further concentrate legislative districts in bigger cities, raising questions about future influence of rural lawmakers.
Other members are: State Reps. Dave Baker, R-Council Grove; Ken Collins, R-Mulberry; Owen Donohoe, R-Shawnee; Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane; Larry Hibbard, R-Toronto; Ron Highland, R-Wamego; Cindy Holscher, D-Olathe; Eileen Horn, D-Lawrence; Russ Jennings, R-Lakin; Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg; Bill Pannbacker, R-Washington; and Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg.
— The Topeka Capital-Journal contributed to this report.