Topeka Kansas’ population is getting larger but at a slower rate than in some neighboring states, according to new estimates released Wednesday by the Census Bureau.
The state added 18,120 residents and grew by 0.6 percent from April 2010 to July 2011. The Census estimates that Kansas has 2,871,238 residents. That rate of growth ranks Kansas 32nd among the states and the District of Columbia.
Iowa recorded 0.5 percent growth, and Missouri saw an estimated 0.4 percent growth. However, Kansas lagged behind Colorado’s 1.7 percent clip, 1.1 percent in Oklahoma, 0.9 percent in Nebraska and 0.8 percent in Arkansas.
State Sen. Jean Schodorf, a Wichita Republican, said she was surprised to learn that the state’s population is still growing, although some of her high school classmates have decided to retire early and move back home to Independence in southeastern Kansas.
“It’s a good sign, and maybe people are getting tired of cities,” she said. “But the ones that I’ve talked to have moved back either to take care of parents or retire to Kansas and not a lot of young kids.”
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback says he wants to slow, if not reverse, the declining population in rural areas during his first year in office. He has enacted programs to entice new residents to those areas through tuition repayment and income tax breaks for qualified applicants.
The Kansas Department of Commerce said Wednesday in a separate report that Chautauqua, Gove and Pawnee counties had joined the state’s rural opportunity zone program. To date, 43 of 50 eligible counties are participating.
Commerce Secretary Pat George said interest in the program continued to be strong.
Counties participating in the program agree to partner with the state to offer student loan reimbursements of up to $3,000 a year for five years to new college graduates. The department said there were 158 applications from across the country for the program.
The rural program also includes a five-year income tax abatement for qualified new residents.
Sherriene Jones Sontag, spokeswoman for Brownback, said “everything in the governor’s agenda for 2012” was aimed at growing Kansas and building on recent gains.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” she said. “More Kansans are working, a number of companies are expanding and we have increasing state revenues. But there is a lot more work to do.”
Brownback intends to do more with taxes, suggesting in recent interviews that he will propose changes to the state income tax code to encourage growth. He has spoken about reducing marginal rates paid by businesses, hoping that making the cuts will spur investment, job creation and growth.
State Sen. Laura Kelly, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said Kansas has to be careful in trying to compete with neighboring states for new residents and business.
She said Colorado is a magnet for young professionals starting their careers and for retirees who have been visiting the mountains for years on family vacations.
“It’s always going to be like that,” said Kelly, of Topeka. “They have the resources that are unique and really compelling.”
Kelly said Texas — another state that Brownback points to for its tax policy — does have jobs, but it also has a large number of residents living in poverty and without insurance. Texas grew by more than 529,000 residents during the same period, with its 2.1 percent growth rate the second-fastest in the nation.
“I’m not sure that’s a model that we’d want to follow,” she said. “It’s not all about jobs. It’s also about quality of life and the kind of jobs that are created.”