State program draws graduates to rural Kansas; new counties to be included

By Nikki Wentling

To see which counties are designated as Rural Opportunity Zones, click here.

Click to enlarge.

Ten years ago, Lee Waldron took a leap of faith. He was a high school senior living in Bakersfield, Calif., a city of more than 300,000 people and had received a football recruitment letter from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. — a rural town of less than 3,000. Waldron had never visited Tabor; he had never been to Kansas. But, at 17 years old, he decided to move 1,500 miles away and change the course of his life forever.

“I just kind of rolled the dice,” he said.

In 2008, a year after graduating from Tabor with a Bachelor of Arts in secondary education, he moved back to California to be a youth minister and high school football coach. However, after four years in the “big city” and the birth of their daughter, Lydia, Waldron’s wife Sara Jo, a Tabor alum and Kansan, wanted to move back home.

So, nine years later, Waldron took another leap. For the second time, he decided to leave California, this time with a wife and daughter, to accept a job at his alma mater.

Waldron benefits from Rural Opportunity Zones incentives

When his in-laws found out about the potential move, they sent  a newspaper clipping about Kansas’ Rural Opportunity Zones, a program established by the Department of Commerce that provides incentives for college grads to move to designated areas of the state. The program was put into effect in June 2011, the same month the Waldrons moved back.

“We were disappointed because Marion County wasn’t on the list,” Waldron said. “We checked every week to see if Marion had opted in yet.”

Two months after their move, in August 2011, Marion County accepted a resolution to budget for the Rural Opportunity Zones, and Waldron became Marion’s first and only participant. Now, he receives funds each year to pay his student loan debt.

“It just happened to be perfect,” Waldron said. “She likes the small town. We both do.”

Program established to reverse population declines

Gov. Sam Brownback and the legislature created the ROZ program after reviewing the 2010 census and acknowledging the problem of population declines in rural Kansas. Forty counties had experienced losses in population of more than 10 percent. These became the original designated areas of the program, with legislature tacking on 10 more before the bill was passed in March 2011.

The program offers income tax waivers and student loan payments of up to $3,000 per year for five years to college graduates who establish residency in a designated area. Income tax waivers are only available to those moving from out of state.

The Department of Revenue handles the income tax waivers, while the Department of Commerce and the county each fund half of the student loan debt payments.

Now, a year since the program was created, there have been 265 applicants, 75 percent of which have been approved and are living in 43 out of the 44 counties that have passed resolutions to fund the student loan payments.

“Individuals typically wanted to move back, or were open to the idea, but this helps make it economically feasible,” said Chris Harris, program manager of the Rural Opportunity Zones. “It lowers that barrier to entry.”

County commissions initially skeptical

Twenty-four more counties are in the process of being added to the ROZ list.

“Right now it’s attached to the House of Representatives house reform bill and it will be in conference committee,” Harris said. “We should find out in early May.”

If these counties are added, Harris and his team will work with the county commissioners to pass the resolutions that will provide funding for the student loan payment portion of the program.

“At the beginning, we weren’t quite sure what the response would be,” Harris said. “There was a lot of skepticism on the part of the counties.”

This hesitation to fund the program’s incentives was apparent in Pratt County. Jan Scarbrough, director of the Pratt Area Chamber of Commerce, said she met with the county commission on three occasions to discuss the funding.

Scarbrough’s first meeting with the commission was unsuccessful, but when she went back a second time they were more receptive. Scarbrough outlined for them the benefits the program would have on the county.

“These people are going to move here. Probably at least some of them will have kids in our schools. They’ll be shopping here, they’ll buy homes here, they’ll tag their cars here,” she said. “It’s a win-win.”

Scarbrough was asked back to a third commission meeting.

“When I went back that third time, they signed the resolution,” she said.

Harris said that this struggle to gain the participation of the counties would not be an issue with the 24 new zones.

“We were asking the first 50 to do it on faith,” he said. “But now, going back a year later, we can say we have 265 applicants, 86 of them from out of state. We have a more compelling argument this summer than we did last summer.”

Scarbrough shows others the benefits of rural living

When asked why young professionals would want to live in a rural area, Scarbrough described her own story.

“I grew up here. When I left, I went to the big city like so many kids out this way do,” she said.

That big city was Detroit, where Scarbrough lived for several months while working as a stewardess for United Airlines.

“I lived downtown,” she said. “Smack in the middle of the city. It was just exciting as heck to me.”

Scarbrough then moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., where she got married and had children. Once it was time to send her kids to elementary school, the family relocated.

“We moved to a town about the size of Pratt,” she said. “It was a place where I knew that people would be watching out for my kids. That’s what the whole small town thing is about; it’s family, it’s community, it’s everybody pulling together.”

Now, Scarbrough is working to give others the experience of living in a small town. She asks businesses for funding, works with the commissioners to lay out a budget and arms professionals with the information they need to recruit new employees.

“It could make a real difference to somebody,” she said.

A  different upbringing

Scarbrough’s desire for her kids to grow up in a small town, like she did, led her back to rural Kansas. For Waldron, it was the desire to give his daughter a childhood that he was unable to experience.

“My daughter will have a different upbringing,” Waldron said. “In California, there’s more people, more diversity. A lot of people are into themselves and they’ll do whatever it takes to get where they need to be. You come to Kansas and there is a more team-oriented, selfless attitude. People work together. A lot of people are willing to help each other.”

One concern the state initially had about the ROZ program is that participants would take advantage of the incentives and leave after the five years of receiving benefits concluded. However, because of their age, marital status and their chosen career fields, Harris expects most of the recipients to establish roots and remain in the counties. Waldron is one of those who plan to stick around.

“There is a possibility that I could be in Marion County for the rest of my life,” he said.

When Waldron made the decision to move to Hillsboro to attend college, he did not know what to expect. He did not know that 10 years later he would be buying a house, putting his daughter in school and working in a town of less than 3,000 people, 45 minutes away from the nearest Starbucks.

“It feels small sometimes,” Waldron said. “But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s where I got my degree, met my wife and where I’ve come back to live.”

To hear more from program manager Chris Harris about the logistics of the Rural Opportunity Zones, click here

Transcript:

Nikki: Chris Harris, program manager of the rural opportunity zones, explains the program and how it began. Harris, a 2008 graduate of the University of Kansas, helped to establish the program and now directs it.

 Nikki: When did the program begin, and have the number of people interested meet your expectations?

 Chris Harris: We launched the application on July 1. It passed legislation last April or early May. I developed it with my team and we put the application on our website on July 1, and we’ve had 265 applications so far. So, about one a day.

Nikki: What information do people interested in the program need to provide?

 Chris Harris: They have to prove three things. They have to show that they live in the county, that it’s their primary residence, that they have a degree from an accredited institution and that they have an outstanding student loan balance.

 Nikki: What are the limitations on the number of participants who can be in the program?

Chris Harris: The counties and the state each pay half of the annual payment, which could be up to $3,000 a person. So, the county would pay $1,500, we pay $1,500. Each county, when they passed a resolution to participate, that’s why they had to pass a resolution, because it comes out of their budget. We had them set an initial budget. What would you be willing to put toward it? And some counties have been very aggressive and some counties had a wait-and-see kind of attitude, and they put in smaller budgets. So, if you totaled the entire accumulative county budget, I thinks somewhere around 400 people that could come in. The state can accommodate more with our budget for the program, and the counties have the option to raise their budget. And they’re going into budgeting process right now, and we expect that they’ll significantly increase that.

Kansas Livestock Association reassures Kansans after USDA finds mad cow

April 25
  • The Kansas Livestock Association says beef is safe, and there is no need for concern over the USDA’s findings of mad cow disease in California. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the disease was found in a dead dairy cow Tuesday, and is the first case of mad cow since 2006. Cattlenetwork.com reports that the KLA emphasized the system worked in preventing the cow from entering the food chain.
  • The Kansas House tax bill, which is now in conference committee, contains a proposal to establish 24 more counties as Rural Opportunity Zones. College graduates who move to a ROZ county can receive help with their student loan payments. There are currently 50 ROZ counties in Kansas, which were chosen based on their decrease in population. To learn more about the program, click here.
  • The Kansas Legislature reconvened today after a three-week spring recess. Legislators will be discussing state budget and redistricting. The Lawrence Journal World reports that house and senate members will also resume talks on reducing the income tax for individuals and eliminating it for businesses.
  • CNN reports that Newt Gingrich will end his bid for the presidential nomination with a final campaign Tuesday in Washington DC, where he will make his announcement to support Mitt Romney. CNN reports that Gingrich plans to focus on helping the GOP take control of Congress.

Lawrence-based Older Women’s League seeks to legalize physician-assisted death

April 18

  • The Kaw Valley Older Women’s League is asking Kansas lawmakers to introduce a bill that would make physician-assisted death legal. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the Lawrence-based group wants physicians to be able to prescribe medication to those with an expected lifespan of six months or less, if the patient requests it verbally and in writing. Members of the league said they think people should be able to choose when they want to die.
  • Gov. Sam Brownback scheduled a news conference Thursday to discuss the proposed changes to Medicaid. The Wichita Eagle reports that the management of the $2.9 billion-a-year program will be given to three private companies. Brownback began the overhaul in February and the changes will take effect in July.
  • Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said he intends to improve access to state records by making them available online. Business Week reports that former Secretary of Ste Ron Thornburgh began the project of better accessibility. Before becoming available online, someone from the public had to request a copy to be mailed. Kobach said the access to records will keep his office efficient and promote knowledge of democracy in the state.
  • The Lawrence Journal World reports the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet later this week to rework the $14.1 billion state budget. Before the break that ends April 25, a compromise, which legislators were close to taking final action on, was thrown out. The negotiated budget will take effect in the next fiscal year, starting July 1.
  • Gov. Sam Brownback will introduce his plans for expanding the state’s ecotourism at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center in Great Bend, Kan on April 28. The Kansas City Star reports Brownback invited participants to discuss ideas for outdoor activities that would bring tourists to the state.

Coalition opposes voter ID law, election commissioners adjust to change

By Nikki Wentling

Kansas NAACP President Glenda Overstreet looked on as members of the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and the AARP, along with students and legislators, rallied against the voter identification law at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 28.

The crowd assembled, waved signs and chanted to show their aversion to a law that Secretary of State Kris Kobach said will  “give confidence to voters and candidates alike that the system is fair.”

Overstreet listened as Topeka NAACP President Ben Scott spoke at the rally — a gathering which focused on the recently introduced amendment that would put the law into effect earlier than planned. She heard him summarize a conflict she has dealt with since last spring, a contention for a “free vote.”

“The SAFE law is not safe. It’s dangerous, it oppresses and it smells like a poll tax,” Scott said.

Overstreet testified against the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act (SAFE act) last March. She organized rallies across the state and coordinated each NAACP branch to converge on state bureaus to prevent its approval. Despite her efforts, Senate passed the SAFE act with a vote of 36 to three in March 2011. The law will require people to prove U.S. citizenship when registering to vote and show photographic identification at the polls.

Now, more than a year after the first defeat, she is in opposition to a proposal that would change the enactment date of the citizenship portion of the law from January 2013 to June 2012 — just in time for the 2012 presidential election. For Overstreet, the struggle against what she says is a “miscarriage of justice” is not yet over.

“We will fight like hell to make sure that the amendment doesn’t pass,” she said.

 Implementation of law not a concern

According to the National Council of State Legislature, 34 states introduced voter identification legislation in 2011, and Kansas was one of three that enacted new ID requirements. In January 2012, the portion of the law mandating a photo ID at the polls was introduced. If voting by mail, citizens must now have their signature verified and include a copy of a photo ID.

County election officials are preparing for the new requirements by training staff to recognize who is exempt from the requirement, what is considered a valid ID and what to do if voters do not possess a photo ID.

“My biggest challenge will be to subprogram my poll workers from the way things used to be and what they will now be required to do,” said Janet Rumple, President of the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials.

Rumple said that the implementation challenges are not something she is worried about.

“We will get through it just like all the other changes that we are confronted with,” she said.

Coalition plans to appeal

In an interview with NPR, Kobach said the law was established to prevent voter fraud, of which there have been 221 cases in the state from 1997 to 2012. Overstreet said this amount of fraud does not constitute a reform to the voting process.

“I think he is being fraudulent to the people of Kansas by saying that,” she said. “We have over two million people in Kansas and you’re talking about 200 cases of fraud requiring a massive issue like this? No.”

Overstreet is not alone in her views. A coalition of a half-dozen groups has formed to appeal the law. The coalition sees it as an unnecessary measure that targets minorities, women and the poor.

According to the Moderate Alliance of Informed Neighbors, a nonpartisan organization out of Shawnee, Kan., 221,910 people — 13 percent of registered voters — do not have photo ID. The coalition is concerned that the cost of the documents required to receive a free ID will be too much for these voters and will lead to decreased turnout at the polls.

However, the first election held using the new requirements produced an above-average turnout.

First use of new requirements deemed a success

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said she thought the increased numbers were a result of the media attention drawn to the election because of the new law, but she does not anticipate a decrease in participation in future elections.

Lehman was a proponent of the SAFE act, and testified for its approval last spring.

“I believe that it’s long overdue for people to have to show ID,” she said. “We had a gap in the law. We couldn’t prove that there had been any voter fraud, but there could have been.”

Most people, Lehman said, did not have a problem with producing a photo ID.

“We’ve seen people coming in for years asking, ‘Why don’t I have to show an ID?,'” Lehman said. “So, those people were very happy, but of course the people who felt that the law was wrong were not.”

There were setbacks in the Wichita election; seventeen voters did not bring a photo ID. Lehman said those people filled out provisional ballots, which were set aside. After the election, poll workers searched for those voters in their records and found that 16 were registered.

“We only had one we really felt did not possess an ID,” Lehman said.

During canvassing, when the board reviews and certifies the vote totals, the canvassers voted on whether or not to count the ballots of those 16 people who did not present a photo ID.

“Their ballots did not count,” Lehman said.

This, Overstreet said, is exactly what she fears.

“This harms all Kansans, although all Kansans don’t know that,” Overstreet said of the SAFE act. “It harms everyone because when you have a law like this, it has a tendency to stop a few people from voting. You have a miscarriage of justice, a society where people have a higher or larger voice than others. Everybody loses. It is not just the people without the vote.”

Debate about amendment not yet over

The House Committee’s amendment to put the law into effect this June will be debated beginning April 25. Overstreet said she and the NAACP plan to educate the community, make efforts to appeal the law, and bring forth legal representation to argue against the amendment.

“It is not for the people of Kansas that Kobach has made this law,” she said. “He has a political agenda, and it’s too bad, because he is supposed to represent all people of the state of Kansas.”

During her time spent in legislative sessions across the nation, Overstreet said lobbyists, legislators and fellow NAACP members chided her for being from a state that passed a voter identification law. The effect of the voter ID law on Kansas’ reputation motivates Overstreet to continue her resistance of the SAFE act.

“It is really embarrassing to know that people see Kansas in that light,” Overstreet said. “That is what we are fighting against.”

Click the map for a closer look at the requirements of the five states with strict voter identification laws. 

“Preservation of Religious Freedom Act” passes House, moves to Senate

April 10
  • The Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which would prohibit the government from creating a law that would infringe on someone’s religious beliefs, passed the Kansas House with a vote of 89-27. The act would nullify the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity on the Lawrence anti-discrimination ordinance. The Kansas City Star reports that the bill will be sent to Senate and discussed in a committee today.
  • A bill presented to protect women from breast cancer is being stalled in the House after it was passed with unanimous support in the Senate in February. Midwest Democracy reports that the bill would require health professionals to inform women that cancer can go undetected during a mammogram; the aim is to lessen the risk of a missed cancer diagnosis.
  • Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed a bill that would require ex-barbers to take a licensing exam upon re-entering the profession after a two-year gap. The current law allows a three-year gap before an examination. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the bill was sent forth by the Board of Barbering as an intended safety measure, but Brownback said the measure was placing a government burden into economic activity.
  • U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that Western Plains, an ethanol plant in Oakley, Kan., would receive a $5 million grant from the USDA Rural Development’s Repowering Assistance Program. The funds will go toward improving the process of converting ethanol into fuel. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that the project will create 15 permanent jobs and 100 construction jobs.
  • University of Kansas Student Senate candidates will discuss their platforms and answer questions today in the Alderson room of the Kansas Union. The University Daily Kansan reported that no formal debates between KUnited and SPQR have been held for this election cycle. Elections will be held tomorrow and Thursday; polls are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Kansas Legislature to overhaul KPERS

By Nikki Wentling

Kansas courts close to make up for budget shortfall

April 4
  • Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss signed an order to close the Kansas courts for five days because legislature did not approve a budget that would help fund the court system’s $1.4 million shortfall. The Lawrence Journal-World reported the courts will close to make up for part of this shortfall. More than 1,500 employees without pay for those five days.
  • University of Kansas Student Senate voted on a bill that would require coalitions for presidential elections to register before chalking or distributing materials.  In accordance with this bill, senate also set deadlines for the candidates to pay fines for campaign violations. The University Daily Kansan reported that the senate also made changes to its budget code at the meeting Tuesday.
  • The Kansas House began debating a bill that would allow pharmacists to stop offering drugs that they think could cause abortion. The law intends to provide legal protections for those in the health care field who do not want to be associated with abortion. The Kansas City Star reported that under this bill, pharmacists could refuse to provide the “morning-after” pill.
  • The Food and Drug Administration is investigating to identify the source of salmonella. The Wichita Eagle reports that members of the FDA called the spread of the illness “rapid”; there have been more than 90 cases throughout the nation. Symptoms of salmonella are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever.
  • The governor’s staff and legislators will be interviewed in the district attorney’s investigation into meetings at Cedar Crest, Gov. Sam Brownback’s residence. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that Brownback invited more than 90 legislators to dinner gatherings in January. Only one democrat was invited to these meetings, and she did not attend.