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Coming to terms with Brownback

Eight months from the general election, the time has come for the Brownback administration to enter the intensive test instruction period to prepare voters for the first-term final exam. As with current K-12 education, the public is receiving lots of reviews on big concepts -- "Kansas is engaged in a big experiment," and lots of "facts" it's hoped will be retained for the important multiple choice exam that will occur Nov. 4.

In order to get the message out, our top civics instructor, Gov. Sam Brownback, has been doing interviews, video clips, ribbon cuttings, East Coast speaking tours, new campaign ads and even an interview on PBS.

The PBS interview concerned his program to incentivize re-population of rural Kansas. The ROZ Program, for Return to Oz, provides tax abatements, and student debt repayment for people coming to work in one of 73 rural counties with declining populations. Our conservative governor also asked for and got a rural-focused state guaranteed low-cost mortgage financing scheme.

During the interview, Brownback emphasized the ongoing (now more than three-fourths of a century) decline in rural population; the probability Kansas is trending toward becoming the 15th least populous state in the nation; and the likelihood there is what economists refer to as moral hazard inherent in the ROZ Program (i.e. some people will use the program to receive the benefits and leave the communities they've moved into as soon as the benefit ceases).

With evidence 669 applications (19 percent were transplants to Kansas) had been approved since inception early in the Brownback administration, (total outlays $880,000) our governor/civics instructor expressed faith based on hope: " ... It's about creating opportunities for people. And they may decide to take 'em. They may not. But it's about growth and creating those opportunities -- that to me is very consistent with what I've tried to be about."

A January report to the Legislature found those approved included 59 government employees, education jobs numbered 324, and 268 were health care workers. The idea is to bring people back, as the governor states, to places such as Parker and Phillipsburg because of the deep sense of community that already exists there -- apparently the heart-warmth of potlucks, sunsets and Sunday services will be enough, along with a little cash.

But, ROZ is part of a romantic experiment to overcome facts this column has noted in the past, and have been reaffirmed recently by the Census Bureau. Through three-plus years of the Brownback experiment called the "Roadmap for Kansas," the state only has grown due to more births than deaths. The effect of 51,000 more births than deaths was diminished by 10,000 more emigrants than immigrants to the state.

While those new baby Kansans will gladden grandparents' hearts, that won't compensate for the likely decline in the workforce that will take place in the 20 years between now and when these infants become fully educated, mature participants in the workforce.

If government and the private sector don't begin to work aggressively to improve the state's physical infrastructure; improve opportunities for high-wage employment; bolster academic performance and the strengths of our higher education system; and generally demonstrate Kansas is ready to move progressively forward in the 21st Century and not backwards to the 19th, it will not be hard to forecast what will become of Kansas's newest 40,000 citizens. They will be the emigrants of the 2030s seeking something more than small-bore subsidies to remain in an economically and creatively lackluster Kansas that fell for conservative romanticism and flunked the real "No Child Left Behind" test.

Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.