By Texas Tribune Staff, The Texas Tribune
“Broadband, jobs, school vouchers and more: State, local leaders reflect on the topics driving conversations in rural Texas” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
LUBBOCK — Rural Texas is home to more than 3 million people. If it were an independent state, it would be the 33rd largest in the nation.
It is steeped in tradition and mythology. From the High Plains in West Texas to the Piney Woods in East Texas, it is as unique as it is sprawling.
And yet, residents continue to lack access to broadband, health care and high-earning jobs. Some towns are on the brink of collapse. Local leaders are doing what they can to find their footing in the 21st century. Many are using federal pandemic recovery funds to reinvest in their infrastructure, creating new economic opportunities for businesses and developing new high school programs to better prepare students for high-tech jobs in health care and energy.
The problems and solutions in rural Texas were examined at an event hosted by The Texas Tribune at Texas Tech University on Nov. 17-18. In a series of live discussions with federal leaders, state lawmakers and local elected officials highlighted the opportunities for the region in public education, health care and natural resources.
Here are a few of the takeaways.
Legislators discuss rural Texas’ concerns ahead of next year’s session
Lawmakers representing rural Texans discussed on Thursday broadband access, school choice, property taxes and other priorities ahead of the 2023 legislative session.
Rural Texans overwhelmingly supported Republican candidates in the midterm elections — Gov. Greg Abbott won his largest margins over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in rural parts of the state — but many issues such as health care access and broadband infrastructure continue to plague small communities despite decades of GOP control across all branches of the state government.
State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said these issues are not specific to Texas but rather emblematic of rural communities across the country. He pointed to investments to keep rural hospitals open and changes made to the school finance formula in 2019 as evidence that the Republican-led Legislature had improved the lives of rural Texans.
On the topic of health care access, state Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass, said the state needed to expand Medicaid, noting that almost one in five Texans is uninsured.
But state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, noted that Republicans remain hesitant to expand Medicaid in the state because of the amount of waste, fraud and abuse he said is present in the current federal system. Instead, he offered a “Texas-centric model” in the form of a health care block grant from the federal government that the state can administer with more control.
The Republican Party of Texas has made school choice a legislative priority, and the issue has come up repeatedly in previous legislative sessions. But while some believe school choice will finally see traction in the upcoming session, neither Republican representative on the stage Thursday committed to supporting or disavowing school vouchers. The vouchers have been historically unpopular in rural Texas’ small communities, where there are few alternatives to public schools.
Morales, the only Democrat on the panel, opposed the expansion of vouchers, citing his constituents’ concerns that the move would drain vital resources from public education.
Rural educators chime in on vouchers and school finance
In a Friday panel about the educational opportunities in rural Texas, state Rep. Ken King, a Republican whose district includes parts of the Texas Panhandle, vowed to reject any bills about school vouchers when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
“If I have anything to say about it, it’s dead on arrival,” he said. “It’s horrible for rural Texas. It’s horrible for all of Texas.”
H.T. Sanchez, superintendent of Plainview Independent School District, also rejected school vouchers, historically a sticking point for rural conservatives who object to diverting dollars away from public schools. Instead, he called on state legislators to take up issues such as school safety and the statewide teacher shortage next session.
Sanchez and King were joined on stage by Midwestern State University President JuliAnn Mazachek and Amarillo College President Russell Lowery-Hart.
Since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, teachers have been on “high alert,” Sanchez said. He asked that the state not create undue anxiety for school districts when enacting new safety measures and that they keep educators’ needs in mind when proposing any new bills.
“This is for us our first normal year in many years,” Sanchez said. “And what teachers ask for is a bit of grace and a bit of understanding.”
King said school safety would be a legislative priority but that he would not support any “one-size-fits-all approach.”
Education leaders expressed hopes for fixes to the state’s school funding formulas, both for K-12 and for higher education. Lowery-Hart said his biggest priority is for the state to tie funding for higher education to how successful schools are at getting students to graduate or transfer to four-year universities, a recommendation the Commission on Community College Finance made earlier this year.
King, who is part of the Texas House’s Public Education Committee, did not detail any specific school funding measure that he would file next session but said he believes there should be a “dedicated source” of public school funding.
Local leaders discuss infrastructure needs and the struggle to be heard in Austin
At a panel on Friday afternoon, three local leaders of rural Texas communities discussed a series of topics that they said were at the top of their minds and their constituents’ minds: infrastructure needs, access to the Legislature, regional collaboration and disinformation.
Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson said the spread of disinformation in her city mirrors the nation’s current levels of distrust in government and has been making local infrastructure fixes more difficult to carry out.
“Our school district could say, ‘Hey, we have a middle school that is so old, and it’s foundationally not going to be safe to occupy in the next few years.’ If we don’t repair it, we’re going to have to close that school down,” Nelson said. “You would not believe how much disinformation came out in that election, and it came out just against a tax increase.”
Nelson said the solution she sees for Amarillo is to increase transparency from officials and foster stronger relationships between government officials and citizens.
Nelson was joined on stage by Lufkin Mayor Mark Hicks and Lubbock City Council Member Steve Massengale. Like Nelson, Hicks spoke about infrastructure in his town. He said redevelopment in downtown Lufkin has stimulated the city’s economic and population growth.
“If [companies] saw a downtown that was vibrant, and things were happening, they’re excited to come there,” Hicks said. “It’s not so much about what kind of tax breaks or how much money are you going to give me. It’s about, ‘Are my employees going to want to relocate here? Are they going to be happy here?’”
All three leaders spoke about the importance of having the voices of rural West Texans heard in the Legislature in Austin.
“If you’re a city far away from Austin, other than your legislative voices, it’s difficult to get your voice into the Capitol. Amarillo is closer to three [other] state capitals than we are Austin,” Nelson said. “If [legislators are] going to tie my hands and not allow me to hire a lobbyist to be the voice for the citizens of Amarillo in Austin, I don’t know how my voice is going to be near as loud or get near as much volume as [Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s].”
All three leaders emphasized the importance of rural Texas communities collaborating with each other, both in everyday life and to make their voices heard at a statewide level.
“We’re now seeing more and more communities getting on board” with working with regional neighbors, Hicks said. “We’ve got to come together if we’re going to have a voice in Austin or on the federal level.”
Rural Texas rethinks job growth and economic development
For rural leaders working on economic development, it’s important to bring in new businesses and workers, as well as foster home-grown ones.
According to Lillian Salerno, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development state director for Texas, communities have shifted from trying to recruit one big business that can become a leading job creator to attracting multiple smaller employers. So far, she said this has been “a better bet” for small towns.
But an even bigger focus for small towns has been on developing the workforce.
For Judy Canales, the Eagle Pass Maverick County Economic Development Alliance’s executive director, this means fostering local higher education offerings and advancement opportunities right at home for youth. For Wendie Cook, board member of the Canadian Economic Development Corporation, it means creating communities that can support those who want to return.
“We are asking people to come back to our community,” Cook said. “It starts with the simple thing of just asking them, but you have to continue to have the mindset of creating a place that they can land and they want to come back.”
Nathan Tafoya, the Mount Pleasant Economic Development Corporation’s executive director, said recent changes in the workplace, such as the rise of remote work, can help rural communities attract newcomers and returners. However, panelists acknowledged that improvements to broadband access and other infrastructure, such as roads and highways, are needed to help connect people and businesses.
And finally, rural communities will also have to think about how to transfer their institutional knowledge to the next generation of leaders and workers.
“All of that knowledge is in people in the age group of 50 to 90 and they’re retiring, and we are not being forward thinking about how to transfer that knowledge to that next generation,” Salerno said. “We’re in desperate need of community developers all over the state.”
Sponsors help make our events possible. Thank you to Texas Rural Funders, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc., Raise Your Hand Texas, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Association of Counties, Texas Electric Cooperatives, TEXAS 2036, Texas A&M Health, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Texas Association of Dairymen, Texas Rural Health Association, Texas Tech University System, Texas Association of Community Colleges, Texas Agriculture Council, Texas Citrus Mutual, The Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, Texas Wheat Producers Board and Association, Texas Cotton Ginners’ Association, Texas Grain and Feed Association, Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., Texas Agricultural Cooperative Council, Texas Veterinary Medical Association, Texas Corn Producers and Texas Poultry Federation for supporting this event and Texas Tech University for hosting this event.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/14/future-of-rural-texas/.
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