Brownback touts bill designed to help rural America

? Small towns wanting to boost their populations — and their economies — need to put some money behind those hopes, Sen. Sam Brownback said.

“People act economically rational,” Brownback said Wednesday, during a town hall meeting at Dodge City Community College. “You’ve got to create an incentive base for them to come.”

Earlier this year, Brownback, R-Kan., and 12 other farm-state senators introduced the New Homestead Act of 2003, designed to reward people who relocate to rural areas through a series of economic incentives.

Those programs include tax credits for rural homebuyers, incentives to pay off student loans for recent college graduates who live and work in small towns, and tax credits for businesses to either expand or relocate in rural communities.

The act is modeled on the original Homestead Act of 1862, which offered Plains settlers 160 acres of land if they lived on the land, farmed it and paid an $18 filing fee. About 270 million acres of land — about 10 percent of the United States — was claimed and settled under that law.

But more than 100 years later, rural communities are grappling with the question of how to ensure their survival.

More than half of Kansas rural counties lost at least 10 percent of their population between 1980 and 2000, according to information from the USDA Economic Research Service that Brownback provided Wednesday.

Kansas ranks sixth nationally among states with a severe loss of their rural population, behind North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Montana.

One program included in the new bill offers to repay up to $10,000 in student loans for recent graduates willing to relocate to a small town. Other provisions include a $5,000 tax credit for homebuyers who live in rural areas, a $3 billion venture capital fund for new businesses willing to set up shop in rural communities, and tax credits to help develop or expand small-business ventures in rural communities.