A couple of initiatives championed by Gov. Sam Brownback are getting mixed reviews in the rural counties they were intended to benefit.
Only about half of the eligible counties have signed on to a program to help people who move to their counties pay their student loans, and a number of local officials are questioning whether an income tax break for new residents will do much to raise their populations or boost their local economies.
The state approved a plan earlier this year that would allow counties to partner with the state to repay 20 percent or up to $3,000 of students loans for college graduates who move to one of 50 rural Kansas counties designated as “rural opportunity zones.” Counties must contribute half the money to pay for the loan program and, according to recent news reports, only 23 counties have agreed to participate.
Some county officials simply think that if the college graduates are working, they should pay off their own loans, while other are hesitant to commit to an untested program. Their concern seems justified. The program might be a good incentive to help counties attract someone to fill an essential job, such as a teacher. However, because college graduates don’t have to move from out of state to get the benefit, it seems likely that it would attract students who simply move back in with their parents and perhaps work at a low-paying job while they search for better employment after graduation.
State officials point out that counties wouldn’t get caught “holding the bag,” as one commissioner put it, if the scholarship payment program is discontinued in the state. That lack of commitment may be good news for counties, but it’s not such good news for college grads considering moving to one of the rural communities at least in part to take advantage of the loan repayment program.
Concerning the income tax program, only people who move to Kansas from other states would be eligible for the five-year break. Kansans pay an average of $1,800 a year in income taxes, so it could be an attractive benefit. However, the costs of moving would be a factor, along with the availability of jobs that would allow new residents to earn a reasonable income on which they would pay taxes.
In both incentives, jobs are the key. Without the jobs, it’s unlikely that either the income tax or student loan programs will have a significant impact on declining population in rural Kansas counties. In at least one Kansas county, the incentives don’t address the most urgent problem. An official in Washington County said jobs are available, but the county doesn’t have affordable housing for the people who would fill those jobs. More incentives for people to build middle-income housing might be more to the point in that county.
Time will tell how beneficial the new programs will be. The income-tax program doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, and perhaps more rural counties will be convinced of the benefits of the loan-repayment program. The state deserves credit for recognizing the problems associated with declining population in rural parts of the state, but these initial efforts may miss the mark for addressing those problems.