Broadband, jobs, school vouchers and more: State, local leaders reflect on the topics driving conversations in rural Texas

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The Future of Rural Texas

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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.

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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.

— William Melhado

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.

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“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.

— Pooja Salhotra

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.

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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.”

— Trent Brown

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.

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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.”

— Alex Nguyen

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discusses federal investments, economic opportunities

In a recorded interview played during the event, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed issues including food, climate and the economy and how rural communities are uniquely affected.

Vilsack spoke with Tribune CEO Evan Smith, who asked about the Agriculture Department’s investments in infrastructure development across all communities.

“We’re investing because it’s the right thing to do,” Vilsack said. “And it’s the smart thing to do, frankly.”

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Vilsack said what benefits farmers and ranchers ultimately benefits rural communities, which he learned to serve while working for rural Iowans in a variety of public service roles.

Smith noted that rural communities are dwindling as many leave to pursue opportunities in larger cities. Vilsack proposed a solution: shifting the cycle of product delivery so goods created in rural areas don’t come back to those communities with hefty price tags.

“What is grown, raised, produced from rural places is taken from those rural places, it’s transported somewhere else where value opportunity wealth is created someplace else, and then that value-added product is sold back to rural folks at a higher cost,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said that modernizing revenue streams for ranchers and farmers may reduce the widening gap between rural and urban communities. The streams of revenue he proposed included what he referred to as a climate-smart economy. Bio-based manufacturing, in which the products are derived wholly or in part from biological materials, would return manufacturing to rural areas, Vilsack said.

He also said an emphasis should be placed on local and regional food, requiring the supply chain infrastructure to support those local food systems. And he mentioned tapping into farm waste and woody biomass as potential sustainable energy sources ripe for an economy looking to increasingly improve its long-term sustainability.

Fixing the basics plaguing rural communities, like food security, reliable and affordable broadband access, and revenue-generating farming alternatives, he said, will make these areas more desirable places to live and work.

— Allison P. Erickson

“Rural health is not dead”

With rural hospitals closing across the state, panel members discussed how to address issues like staffing, funding and the lack of educational opportunities to plug the increasing gaps. They also discussed steps to solve health access issues, such as providing pathways into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers; rethinking community health models with a more entrepreneurial lens; and improving broadband access.

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Financing and staffing issues have drastically affected access to quality care in the South Plains’ Crosby County, said John Hodges, a family nurse practitioner at Ralls Family Medicine.

But Hodges touted community care models, which provide hyperlocal health care, citing his clinic as an example of a health structure that operates as more of a business than an all-access center. In some cases, Hodges said, this has meant prioritizing which types of insurance to accept to keep the clinic’s books balanced.

“Rural health is not dead,” Hodges said. “We have to shift our focus. We have to shift our focus big time.”

All four panel members lauded rural communities’ clinical care response during the COVID-19 pandemic, as facilities focused on maximizing access to care.

“The trust level in rural hospitals and rural health care has improved 30% in the last three years,” said Jennifer Franklin, the chief clinical officer of the Yoakum Community Hospital. “I think we have a window, a small window to capitalize on this and to engage people in a better way.”

But keeping these rural facilities staffed and funded forces leaders to choose between raising taxes or cutting services, said Lorenzo Serrano, the CEO of Winkler County Memorial Hospital in the Midland-Odessa area.

Serrano said rural communities struggle with the additional burden of caring for patients in a state with an 18% uninsured rate, the highest in the nation.

“Forty-three percent of every[one] that walks through the door costs us money,” Serrano said. “There’s basically two things you can do: You can raise taxes, which nobody likes. … The No. 2 is you have to cut costs. That conversation gets harder and harder.”

Several panelists mentioned the potential for telehealth to help reach those who live far from a clinic or hospital. Telehealth, however, requires an internet connection, which is missing or ineffective in several rural communities.

— Allison P. Erickson

“When I wished people could get broadband was yesterday”

There are 2.8 million rural Texas households that lack access to broadband. And as urban and suburban parts of the state utilize quality connectivity to connect with better economic and educational opportunities, rural communities are left behind, according to members of a panel on broadband access.

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“When I wished people could get broadband was yesterday,” said Jennifer Harris, a federal program officer for Texas’ Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Much of the state lacks the basic infrastructure to connect quickly to the internet, but Charlie Cano, CEO of Etex Telephone Cooperative, a fiber network transport hub for East Texas, said the best option would be to bet on installing fiber-optic cables for connectivity across the state, where it’s possible.

In some areas where Cano’s company provides services, clients want faster connectivity because some of their neighboring areas have the services. But without better funding to accelerate modernization, Cano said, the company can’t meet such needs for rural communities.

Dustin Fawcett, the Ector County judge-elect, began requesting nonprofit financial support to increase broadband access in areas under his jurisdiction.

“What we know is we have citizens that need broadband, they need high-speed internet access,” Fawcett said. “What’s the point in having all these great [online education] programs if for the most part the people you’re trying to access through these programs to get into these trade schools, to get into higher ed, they have no access? It’s a difficult problem to solve.”

The panel noted that in rural communities, there is likely a sole internet service provider. So how do lawmakers and leaders keep costs low? Harris suggested sharing the affordability program administered by the Federal Communications Commission that supplements users’ internet bills by $30 per month for broadband. Most people don’t know the incentive exists, Harris said. Cano agreed with clients taking all options to help pay their bills because it ultimately impacts the internet provider’s bottom line.

An audience member asked whether the current government funding provided is enough for Texas. Harris and Cano said they’re hedging their bets but hope the funding is at least a start in the right direction.

— Allison P. Erickson

State’s water infrastructure needs immediate attention, panelists say

As the Texas Water Development Board adjusts state supply models every five years, panelists said that the state Legislature needs to look at funding water infrastructure improvements and development in rural Texas now — or pay the price in 20 years.

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“The one thing that’s going to eliminate the Texas miracle, the only thing that's going to eliminate it, is access to water. Plain and simple,” said state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock.

Infrastructure improvements run the gamut from water desalination plants to less-invasive methods of fixing leaky pipes when water levels dip below engineered levels. But all of these initiatives cost money.

Panelists discussed structural improvement projects that need more support from the Legislature. Perry said that simply finding an underwriter to take on projects in rural areas has been difficult because the return on investment is too low to entice the major investments required.

Marilu Hastings, the executive vice president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, said researchers have much of the knowledge of and solutions to these issues, but that connecting those researchers to policymakers is difficult.

“There’s a lot of great research going on, a lot of these challenges are sitting on some young, brilliant engineer’s laptop right now, but how to get that person funded, their work funded, published and out into the community of decision-makers, planners, policymakers … I think that’s the hardest part of my job,” Hastings said.

Carlos Rubinstein, former chair of the Texas Water Development Board, said facilities and infrastructure tend to draw attention only when there’s a crisis, like during the 2021 winter storm, but Texas needs to use academia to educate and prepare skilled infrastructure workers.

“You don’t go to your mom and say, ‘Gee, Mom, when I grow up I want to be a wastewater plant operator engineer, but God do we need ’em,” Rubinstein said. “So that’s where I think academia will be playing a big role and should.”

— Allison P. Erickson

Disclosure: Texas Tribune events are supported by corporate sponsors and 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.

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