TOPEKA, Kan. —
As the population in four of Kansas’ poorest counties declines, a group of Kansas House members is hoping to turn the situation around by sponsoring a bill that would entice people to move back to the state.
Gov. Sam Brownback established the Rural Opportunity Zone program in 2011 to help draw new residents and businesses to counties where populations had dropped by 10 percent in the previous decade.
People who move to participating counties are eligible for income tax waivers, as well as tuition repayment for up to five years.
Cherokee, Labette, Montgomery and Sumner counties could be added to the program if a bill sponsored by Republican Reps. Jim Kelly, of Independence, Michael Houser, of Columbus, Virgil Peck, of Tyro, and Richard Proehl, of Parsons, is approved.
“It’s a recruiting tool for our industries to use to attract people from out of state into Kansas,” Kelly said, adding Montgomery County has lost 18 percent of its population since 1980.
“About 12.5 percent of the work force lives outside of Kansas,” he said. “You need to have some things to be attractive to cause them to look at moving back.”
Those who are eligible for the Rural Opportunity Zone program can receive Kansas income tax waivers for up to five years and/or student loan repayments up to $15,000.
Program Manager Chris Harris said the program began with 50 participating counties that can offer one or both of the financial incentives to new full-time residents. Now, there are 73.
Since the program was implemented, Harris said, more than 1,300 applications have been received for student loan reimbursements. Of those, 75 percent will ultimately qualify.
“We can say confidently there are more people living in rural Kansas as a result of the program,” Harris said. “For decades, the norm has been for young people to leave rural Kansas. We’ve been able to bring some of them back.”
Harris said the population trends stretch beyond one decade, and one of the reasons for the decrease is the perception young people and parents have about opportunities in the state.
“Young people may believe there are better opportunities in an urban area,” Harris said. “There are jobs and opportunities in rural Kansas.”
He said there have been some complaints from those already living in rural Kansas who wonder why they cannot qualify for the program, but most residents support its goal.
“The vast majority of the people living in the county prior to the program, they understand the purpose behind the program and why it is structured that way,” he said.