Only one committee in the Kansas House of Representatives has a leadership team comprised of three lawmakers living west of U.S. Highway 81.
It’s the new Rural Revitalization Committee.
The problems of rural Kansas are varied and challenging, “but perhaps we can bend the curve,” said Committee Chairman State Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton. Rounding out the leadership team are Vice Chairman State Rep. Adam Smith, R-Weskan, and Ranking Minority Member State Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson.
“It’s pretty open-ended,” Hineman said of the committee’s agenda. “That’s what has most people excited,” according to Smith.
Probst is the House’s only first-term legislator to be a ranking minority member on a committee, but he’s also the westernmost Democrat in the House.
Charting a course
After Hineman lost an attempt to be re-elected by House Republicans as House majority leader for this new session, Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, and Hineman talked about committee assignments. The Rural Revitalization Committee was Ryckman’s “brainchild,” Hineman said. Hineman was eager to serve as chairman.
The committee meets at 9 a.m., five days a week. Some other committees — such as Energy, Utilities, and Telecommunications and Financial Institutions and Pensions — meet a couple of days a week. Rural Revitalization’s daily schedule underscores the importance Ryckman, who grew up in Meade, gives to the committee, Hineman said.
Just about any topic that is a concern for rural areas — broadband access, health care services, adequate housing, economic development, agribusiness, declining school enrollment — overlaps the agendas of other legislative committees.
“I do want to coordinate,” Hineman said, adding he had started those discussions with committee chairmen.
Hineman recognizes the pressures on the state budget and that it is "unrealistic" to think funding will be readily available for projects. But some beneficial actions would not hinge on big expenditures, he pointed out.
For example, the committee can look at one-size-fits-all regulations, he said. Ambulance services in urban areas may be able to comply with the credential requirements for EMS drivers, but Hineman said he’s heard the regulations are challenging for rural areas.
Bringing issues to light through informational hearings is one of his objectives, too.
On the agenda
In the committee’s first week, Kansas State University’s Associate Professor of Sociology Matthew Sanderson talked about population trends. There are counties where 55 of every 100 people are over 65, Probst said.
“The math doesn’t work to replace that over time,” Probst said.
If population trends continue, projections show that by 2044, 47 percent of Kansans will live somewhere in the five northeast counties of Leavenworth, Wyandotte, Johnson, Douglas and Shawnee counties, Probst said.
“Very sobering report,” committee member and freshman State Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, said of Sanderson’s presentation.
This week's committee agenda will include speakers addressing the topics of rural demographics, rural development and challenges, and rural tourism development.
“It’s important for us all to understand where rural Kansas has come from before we can begin good discussions about where we are going — and how to get there,” Smith wrote in an email.
The committee’s focus right now is not planning legislation but listening and learning, Probst said.
“One of the most concerning topics for me regarding northwest Kansas is reliable broadband access,” Smith wrote. “The reality is our schools, our hospitals, and many businesses require fast and reliable access to function,” Smith continued, and in the very near future, the precision agriculture industry will require it for irrigation and machinery.
"We can’t talk about it in a vacuum,” Probst said, agreeing that the discussion about reliable broadband raises such issues as schools, health care, and business.
There’s also a lifestyle factor.
“Will young people move to an area if they can’t stream video?” Probst asked. He doesn’t think so.
“Truly this committee has broad possibilities,” Waggoner wrote. “I personally see that real job and business growth is the key issue in bringing (and keeping) young working-age families in rural counties."
Waggoner thinks the committee has “a good mix of people." Hineman “is very experienced and has a good grasp of who we should be hearing from before we start talking about legislation," in Waggoner's view.
Other members are: State Reps. Dave Baker, R-Council Grove; Ken Collins, R-Mulberry; Owen Donohoe, R-Shawnee; Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane; Larry Hibbard, R-Toronto; Ron Highland, R-Wamego; Tim Hodge, D-North Newton; Cindy Holscher, D-Olathe; Eileen Horn, D-Lawrence; Russ Jennings, R-Lakin; Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg; Bill Pannbacker, R-Washington; Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg.
Hineman noted that some legislators who represent urban areas — such as Donohoe and Holscher — have farm family backgrounds.
“We’re going to work together for ideas that are good. They won’t be steeped in partisanship,” Probst said.
“For the state to thrive, this part of the state has to thrive,” said Carolyn Dunn, executive director of Stafford County Economic Development. “I want to be very hopeful,” she said of the new committee, but she has seen other rural efforts and initiatives. She wants something “substantive” to emerge from the committee.
Katie Eisenhour, executive director of Scott County Development Committee Inc., sounded a similar note when she talked about rural Kansas.
“If we can grow our rural economy, the entire state wins,” she said.
Eisenhour is buoyed by the appointment of Hineman to head the committee.
“He really is action-oriented, and I like that kind of mentality. It works for us very well in Scott City,” she said.
Governor’s rural office
Gov. Laura Kelly said the word “rural” nine times in her State of the State address Jan. 16. She also thanked Ryckman and Hineman “for recognizing this important challenge and creating a new committee to focus significant time and energy on this issue. We look forward to partnering with you and the committee members."
During her campaign, Kelly presented “A Vision for Rural Prosperity” that included establishing the Office of Rural Prosperity. Her proposed budget contained $2 million to establish the Office of Rural Prosperity, within the Kansas Department of Commerce.
“I’m honored to be heading the rural prosperity effort, along with Department of Commerce Secretary David Toland, on behalf of the Kelly Administration,” Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers said in a statement.
Rogers grew up on a farm and worked in the farm credit industry.
“I know firsthand the challenges our rural communities face. I’m eager to get to work to put together a plan that supports rural Kansas and paves the way for improvements in roads, broadband, housing, agriculture, and healthcare in these areas,” he said.
“I am a firm proponent that if we want to grow Kansas, we need to get back to believing in who we are, which is rural," Eisenhour said. "That’s who we are.”