Kansas senators question governor's opportunity plan to boost rural areas


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TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas senators have expressed skepticism over the usefulness of Gov. Sam Brownback's Rural Opportunity Zones program.

The Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/1AxuXyJ) reports that Republican and Democratic lawmakers are questioning whether the program, which is designed to pull people into the state's rural areas, will actually help rural economies.

The program, which covers 77 counties that make up a large portion of western and southeastern Kansas, provides incentives like student loan forgiveness and waived income taxes to persuade people to move to rural areas.

People who move to participating counties are potentially eligible for loan repayment, while people who have never been in Kansas or have lived out-of-state for several years can waive income taxes for up to five years.

The Department of Revenue estimates that 330 people will receive income tax waivers for 2014, which will cost the state about $800,000 in revenue.

Chris Harris of the Business and Community Development Division of the Kansas Department of Commerce told the senators Wednesday that those individuals will make a combined total of $29.9 million, which he says will have an economic impact of $44 million in the state.

"It is designed to address population loss, the population loss problem that has spanned decades and spanned generations and has come to define how we think about rural Kansas," Harris said. "Over the course of the last several years, we have found, we believe ROZ is very effective and proven tool to address this issue."

In fiscal 2015, the program has provided $1.2 million in student loan repayment. Individuals who move to rural areas are eligible for up to $15,000 loan forgiveness.

Most of the program's applicants work in health care or education, both sectors that receive public funds.

"If we're really going to work on retaining educating our educator base in rural Kansas, is ROZ the way to do it or do we need to be looking at a different combination of incentives?" Baldwin City Democratic Sen. Tom Holland said.

Republican Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook of Shawnee said the committee needs a "bigger picture" to evaluate whether the program is striking the right balance between fostering public vs. private growth.

"I think Sen. Holland made some excellent points. I think it's so important to keep in mind that it takes a certain percentage of employment in the private sector to support those in the public sector and when that gets out of balance, that's when you lose population because the taxes become way too high," Pilcher-Cook said.

The program does have the support of Republican Sen. Robert Olson of Olathe, who says something has to be done about the aging rural population.

According to Harris, 35 of the original 50 counties in the program, which started in 2011, have seen improvements in their average population when compared to their average populations over the previous 40 years.

Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com

Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com

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