Neb. lawmakers ponder rural population declines

Farm Forum

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – As population in many rural Nebraska counties continues to decline, some Nebraska lawmakers are considering ideas to reverse the trend that range from traditional proposals to radical suggestions.

The ideas come amid the latest U.S. Census figures that showed population declines in 61 of Nebraska’s 93 counties between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2013.

An analysis by David Drozd, of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research, found the state’s 51 nonmetropolitan counties, or those that lack a town of 2,500 people, have seen a net population decrease since the 1930s.

What should rural areas do?

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus called for studying the idea of developing a new city near the interchange of Interstates 80 and 76 in western Nebraska, near the Colorado border. The development could serve as an economic hub for communities in central and western Nebraska, he said.

“I think we need to just start talking about something because western Nebraska is being evacuated by the fact that people have a hard time seeing an exciting future for it,” said Schumacher, who acknowledged his idea might not be practical.

The Legislature has tried using various grants or subsidies in the past, he said.

“None are dramatic and exciting and they simply have marginal effectiveness at best,” he said.

After years of rural population losses and urban county gains, almost 54 percent of the state’s population now is in three counties: Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy, Drozd said.

Drozd notes, however, that in the first three years of this decade, population declines in rural counties were smaller than in the previous decade.

“There has been a little bit of strength there but not quite enough to turn the tide,” he said.

In Sen. Kate Sullivan’s central Nebraska district, the population fell in eight of nine counties.

Given that, Sullivan said it’s important to acknowledge gains not reflected in population growth. For example, it’s a positive change if a family that had been struggling to make a living in agriculture is now able to succeed.

“We revel in small gains,” she said.

The state is providing support for rural Nebraska now, she said, although it is incremental.

For example, a prison reform bill that just received first-round approval includes loan repayment assistance for attorneys who will practice in rural areas. The state also has a tax credit for beginning farmers.

Sullivan said rural communities also could work together more effectively, taking a collective approach to spending tax dollars after examining a region’s strengths and weaknesses. Some consolidated school districts and health facilities already have made such efforts, she said.

Whatever communities do, they need to rely on ideas from the people who live there, Sullivan said.

Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney acknowledged that retaining residents and attracting new people to outstate Nebraska is “just a real tough nut to crack.”

Concentrating Nebraska’s population in only a few areas hurts much of the state because it makes it increasingly hard to offer services elsewhere, Hadley said. But finding solutions is difficult.

“I would sure like to hear from people if there are ways that they think we can help get people back,” Hadley said.

Sen. Tyson Larson lives in O’Neill, population 4,000, and represents Rock County, which had the state’s second-largest percentage population decrease.

Young leaders need to step up and move back, he said. However, it’s hard for young people to get into agriculture now with high land prices and property taxes, he said. Focusing on property tax relief could entice more people back into agriculture, Larson said.

Larson said there aren’t any easy answers, but it’s vital to address the issue. Part of the solution could be realizing that for many people, living in communities like O’Neill have benefits that can’t be found in a city like Lincoln or Omaha.

Small town life offers “a true sense of community and a true sense of coming together on a lot of things,” he said.