Dave Helling

In Kansas and Missouri, why are rural lawmakers interfering in cities’ affairs?

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly made rural redevelopment a central part of her first speech to lawmakers.

“The majority of our 105 counties lost population last year, and for many years prior to that,” she said. “Whether it’s roads, broadband, housing, or agriculture, they need our support.”

Maybe they’ll get it. The Kansas House has a new committee aimed at revitalizing rural areas. It began meeting earlier this month.

Across the state line in Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson wants $5 million to expand broadband internet. “We currently have about 10 school districts and many rural communities that lack access to high speed broadband,” he told the legislature. “That is unacceptable.”

Such appeals to rural development in Kansas and Missouri are pretty common. Perhaps, though, it’s a good time to ask a fundamental question: Why?

Why should urban and suburban areas care about, or help pay for, rural development of broadband, schools, housing or anything else?

The tug-of-war between rural America and urbanites is as old as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, of course. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” Jefferson once wrote.

The sturdy yeoman farmer is so embedded in American myth that it rarely is questioned. “There’s something special about life in rural Kansas,” the state Department of Commerce says. “Something authentic.”

Leawood, apparently, is fake.

But the problem now is obvious: Those closest to rural culture are leaving for the cities, in droves.

One-fourth of Kansas counties have fewer than 3,000 residents. Some rural Kansas counties may be all but abandoned by 2064, according to one study. At that point, 80 percent of all Kansans will live in urban or suburban communities.

Missouri is no different. In the next 30 years, “all of the top 10 fastest-growing counties will be metropolitan counties,” the state says.

Migration from the country to the city is undeniable. But the yeoman farmer myth survives, which is why politicians push rural subsidies and development plans, from school spending to property tax breaks to incentives and special committees.

At this point in this discussion, urban politicians typically shake their heads and complain about the unfairness of it all.

They’re missing the point. Most people living in cities and the suburbs are quite happy to help out their rural neighbors, by supporting school districts with 170 students, or backing taxes for rural roads and bridges, or better internet service.

What they do object to, increasingly, is the interference of rural lawmakers in local urban affairs, from guns and taxes to trash bags and labor laws. Because rural interests are over-represented in our politics, that interference often becomes law, and it rankles.

Plus, it’s counterproductive. At some point, as the population shifts, the legislatures in Kansas and Missouri will become dominated by urban interests — at the expense, potentially, of residents who prefer a rural way of life.

There is a way out, but it requires abandonment of the Jeffersonian myth. As it turns out, everyone who labors is a chosen person, no matter where they live or what they do.

As Jefferson might have said, we are all Kansans. We are all Missourians.

So good luck to legislators and governors as they focus on rural areas. Perhaps they’ll realize the countryside is healthiest when all residents are free to decide things for themselves.

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Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.