County Magazine | February 14, 2023
Event examines the strengths and needs of rural Texas
The Texas Tribune hosted a two-day symposium in November that surveyed the strengths and needs of rural Texas ahead of this year's legislative session and beyond. Held on the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock, "The Future of Rural Texas" featured a series of panel discussions on education, health care, broadband access, economic development, natural resources, local government and more.
Participants underscored rural Texas' crucial contributions to the nation's and the world's food, fiber and energy supplies throughout the event, which the Texas Association of Counties helped sponsor. Nearly 2,000 people joined the conference either in person or online.
"The through line of this conference is that rural is Texas and Texas is rural — always has been, always will be," Evan Smith, The Texas Tribune's CEO and co-founder, said during introductory remarks.
While the state's population grew by 4 million between 2010 and 2020, more than half of Texas counties, all of them rural, lost population, further decreasing the percentage of Texans who live in a farming or ranching part of the state. Even so, Smith said, more than 3 million people still live in rural Texas. If rural Texas were its own state, it would be the 33rd-largest state in the nation, he noted.
"Rural Texans deserve, have earned and have a right to expect so much more than they're getting," he said.
The conference began Nov. 17 with a preview of the 88th legislative session, moderated by Smith. State Reps. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), Eddie Morales Jr. (D-Eagle Pass) and Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) discussed several topics, including higher education funding, property taxes and school vouchers.
There was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for vouchers expressed during the conference. In many parts of rural Texas, the local public school is the center of community life, and private schools are nonexistent. Burrows and Landgraf were noncommittal when asked by Smith about letting families use public education dollars for private school tuition. Other conference panelists were clear in their opposition.
"If I have anything to say about it, it's dead on arrival," state Rep. Ken King, (R-Canadian), said about school vouchers during an education panel on Nov. 18. "It's horrible for rural Texas. It's horrible for all of Texas."
Because expanding access to high-speed internet is critical in so many areas, broadband was a common theme across panels. Likewise concerns about "a cookie-cutter approach" from the Legislature to issues important to rural Texans, as Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson described it during a panel on municipal government in rural areas.
It's important that local rural voices are heard at the Legislature, Nelson said.
"If you're a city far away from Austin, other than your legislative voices, it’s difficult to get your voice into the Capitol," she said. "Amarillo is closer to three state capitals than we are Austin. 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 the voice of Austin's mayor.
The event also included Smith’s videotaped interview with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. You can watch it and videos of all of the event's panel discussions on The Texas Tribune's YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/