WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) –
Rural Kansas is shrinking and those who live in the larger cities are paying the price. That’s why a Western Kansas lawmakers says we need to spend time figuring out what needs to change to encourage growth out west.
"The first step is identification of the various issues that rural Kansas faces. And then look for possible solutions," said Rep. Don Hineman, a Republican from Dighton, Kansas.
The Kansas Speaker of the House, Rep. Ron Ryckman, has announced there will be a new committee in Topeka next year to look into those causes and cures, the Rural Revitalization Committee. Hineman says they already know a few of the answers, they just need more people to pay attention.
"It gives us a microphone. It gives us a podium to talk about these issues that sometimes just get overlooked," he added.
Hineman spoke with Pilar Pedraza via Skype Christmas Eve about the new committee he’ll be chairing in Topeka starting in January. The goal? He says it’s to figure out why rural Kansas is shrinking.
"Most of Kansas’ counties are losing population. And that’s a long term trend," he said.
A September report from KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research shows nearly 82% of Kansas cities lost people over the last decade, many of them young people who left for college and never came back. Hineman says the loss is a self-perpetuating cycle right now.
"(It) makes it harder to hang on to your retail folks on Main Street, makes it harder to hold onto the hospitals, the schools, on and on. It’s kind of a downward spiral."
The question his committee will be trying to answer with this investigation, what spark will get things going in the other direction? Hineman says he has a few ideas, from thing as simple as quality of life, like better broadband access, to the availability of affordable housing.
"I know there are businesses that want to expand but they can’t find enough workers to allow them to do that," he said. "And a good part of that is there’s no place for a worker to live."
He says the committee will also look at cities bucking the trend, like Moundridge. In that same KU report it had the fourth largest population jump in the state, the largest for a city its size.
Hineman says the rural economy is a problem rural Kansans have been talking about for awhile. But, he adds, it’s a problem all Kansans need to know about, because it’s costing everyone money.
"As population declines in rural Kansas, as the economy shrinks, as the tax base shrinks," he explained, "that means urban Kansas is left paying the bill for rural Kansas."
While Hineman has high hopes for this new committee he warns don’t expect a bunch of new laws or economic incentives to come out of it in 2019. This first year will be more about figuring out the dimensions of the problem and, hopefully, pushing some issues to the top of the budget priority for the following year.