The heart of Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers’ rural development initiative is the search for a basket of remedies to quality of life challenges eroding communities outside the state’s urban centers.
The administration’s new Office of Rural Prosperity intends to grapple with housing shortages, financially struggling hospitals and shuttered businesses on main street. Priorities include boosting access to broadband services, expanding manufacturing jobs and driving tourism.
“We’re just getting started,” Rogers said on Capitol Insider, a podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal. “It’s not going to be the state’s job to fix everything, but what we hope this office will do is shine resources and shine a spotlight on rural Kansas. I tell people, in a lot of cases, rural Kansas will have a seat at the table. When we look at policy initiatives or programs, we want to ask the question: How will this affect rural Kansans and the way of life of rural Kansans?”
Rogers is a former agriculture banker who represented a Wichita district in the Kansas Senate before the November election victory of Democrat Laura Kelly in the race for governor.
“One of the things we heard from the campaign is people throughout the state, no matter where they were at, didn’t feel like they were being listened to,” Rogers said.
He said sources of potential economic development funding from the township to federal levels would be identified. Strategies working in cities and towns will be chronicled so others don’t have to reinvent the wheel, he said. The Kelly administration can assist by bringing ideas and resources together, he said.
Rogers said rural housing shortages meant school districts or small businesses had difficulty retaining employees. Lenders are reluctant to make home loans and municipal governments can’t afford infrastructure necessary to support residential expansion, he said.
“We’ve got to look at some grants and some tax credits,” the lieutenant governor said. “How do we put those in effect so they have the biggest bang for the buck?”
He said the state could target construction of four-lane highways to enable more communities to bid on major business expansion projects.
Kelly proposed expansion of Medicaid eligibility to about 150,000 Kansans, which would funnel millions of dollars to rural and urban hospitals. The federal government would pay 90 percent of expansion costs.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate have raised financial objections to deepening access to Medicaid in Kansas.
“Medicaid expansion won’t save rural hospitals,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita. “Utilization of hospitals has fundamentally changed. You simply can’t keep a 25-bed hospital staffed when you don’t have people in beds.”
Rogers said anxiety about availability of health care was often raised by Kansans interacting with the Kelly administration. He said people were aware of hospitals closing down, failing to meet payroll or losing medical professionals.
“With the expansion of Medicaid in Nebraska — you know, that got passed in the election in November — they’re fearful that many of our health care professionals on the northern tier will take jobs in Nebraska because they’ll have a little bit more money to hire people,” he said.