Democratic Governor Candidate: Rural Kansas Needs Help

Jul 16, 2018
Originally published on July 17, 2018 8:39 am

A revival of rural Kansas can come from drawing businesses and housing to the centers of small cities and by building better highways, gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly said Monday.

In a plan she says could invigorate rural areas, the Democrat also calls for propping up small grocery stores, expanding Medicaid coverage, reopening state offices closed in recent years and fixing deteriorating housing in those areas.

The state senator from Topeka didn’t put a price tag on her rural rejuvenation plan. But she said some of it would be paid for by shifting money from underperforming economic development efforts. She promised a review of existing programs to sort out which ones have failed to deliver jobs and rural development.

“The peanut in this entire plan is the establishment of the Office of Rural Prosperity,” Kelly told the Kansas News Service. “That shows how serious we are about this issue that this is not going to be some sort of plan that gets put on the shelf.”

Josh Svaty, another Democrat running for governor, read Kelly’s plan and found much to agree with. It echoed, he said, the same proposals that Paul Davis championed in his failed run for governor four years ago. And, he said, it reads like plans Democrats across the country have endorsed for years.

“It’s not the plan, it’s the messenger,” said Svaty, a former member of the Kansas House and one-time state agriculture secretary. Coming from Kelly, he said, it sounds like “just another Topekan who’s rolling out the same talking points.”

As someone from rural Ellsworth County, Svaty said he can better win over rural voters in the general election.

“They just trust me because they know this is where I’m from,” he said in a phone interview.

Still, Svaty agreed with Kelly when she placed part of the blame for closing hospitals, cash-strapped schools, disappearing industries and other troubling trends in rural Kansas on the policies of former Gov. Sam Brownback and his Republican successor, Gov. Jeff Colyer.

Yet the emptying out of rural communities, particularly across the Great Plains, has happened steadily for generations.

Kelly said that as governor she would start with a “thorough review of the outcomes of all current economic development incentives and tax credits.”

She also said federal money that would pay for much of Medicaid expansion — help from Washington that’s set to decline in coming years — would boost rural health care and the part it plays in local economies.

Among the initiatives in Kelly’s proposal:

  • On housing, she’d give tax credits to spur the development of the upper floors of downtown buildings into apartments and press colleges to put housing in downtown areas.
  • On infrastructure, her plan calls for completing road projects — including many that have gone dormant in recent years of state budget cuts to highway improvements — and putting more money into developing rural Internet access.
  • On hospitals, she would expand Medicaid coverage to bolster the budgets of small, struggling hospitals and work to draw more physicians and dentists to rural areas.
  •  On state services, Kelly called for re-opening shuttered state offices or creating systems where traveling state workers hold regular office hours across Kansas; and creating an “Office of Rural Prosperity” that would align policies with rural needs and promote small towns to draw new residents.

Kelly said she would also use the governor’s office to draw in more skilled workers, retain employers and boost tourism.

Carl Brewer, another Democratic candidate for governor, didn’t specifically criticize the Kelly plan. But his campaign said in an email that “what may be right for Chautauqua County is different than what may be right in Dodge City.” The email said the former Wichita mayor would work “directly with communities across Kansas to find out what they need, when they need it, and what order makes sense for each community.”

Scott Canon is digital editor of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @ScottCanon.

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