Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s views on rural Texas
Opinion: This piece expresses the views of its author separate from those of this publication.
Two weeks ago, I spent a lot of time in North Texas listening to people’s ideas about how we can get back to doing the big things that can move this state forward. A lot of folks shared similar ideas with me: that we need to make sure we have world class schools, that we create the best jobs in America right here in Texas, and that we ensure every Texan can afford to see a doctor and be well enough to live up to their full potential.
But we won’t get there until we start putting forth a greater investment in the rural communities that produce the food, the fuel, and the fiber that power the rest of the state. While rural Texans in counties like Wichita, Baylor, Archer, and Clay have played an outsized role in making Texas the 10th largest economy in the world, they’ve too rarely received the necessary state-level investments in infrastructure, education, and health care to guarantee they can share in the wealth they’ve generated.
A prime example: rural broadband.
A good friend I met with in Gainesville, for example, told me that far too many areas outside the city limits struggle to get broadband internet speeds above 5 mbps, making it impossible for students to do homework online, to make telehealth possible, or for entrepreneurs to be able to start businesses and create jobs there.
And that challenge may become even greater going forward now that state leaders have defunded the Universal Service Fund, a state-administered fund that supports rural broadband.
Because of how expensive it is for telecommunications providers to offer phone and internet service in rural communities, the Universal Service Fund serves as a lifeline, subsidizing those providers to build out infrastructure and provide affordable services in these areas. Without it, Texans living in rural areas across the state could soon see their phone and internet bills go up anywhere between $25-$175 per month — and some may lose those services altogether.
While the state Legislature passed a bipartisan bill earlier this year to force the Public Utility Commission to fix the problems with the Universal Service Fund, Governor Abbott vetoed the bill in June, leaving the fund’s fate up to the results of an appellate court hearing that took place last week on Dec. 15.
The crisis with the Universal Service Fund is just the latest example of state leaders turning their backs on rural communities.
Just look at this state’s rural health care crisis. Because Texas has stubbornly refused to expand Medicaid — leaving $100 billion of federal health care support on the table — we have the highest uninsured rate in the country, a problem that has an outsized impact on rural communities. More rural hospitals have closed in Texas than in any other state, leaving one-third of Texas counties without a single hospital, including Archer.
One young woman I met in Texarkana told me how difficult it is knowing that if only she lived a few blocks away in Arkansas, she’d be able to afford health care — because state leaders there have expanded Medicaid, bringing the uninsured rate in Arkansas down to half what it is in Texas. It’s a sentiment held in places like Wichita Falls, too, now that state leaders just across the border in Oklahoma also expanded Medicaid this past summer.
We see this problem in rural education as well. Those living in rural North Texas say their towns struggle to compete with places like Dallas and Fort Worth to pay teachers what they’re worth and to offer the educational and workforce development opportunities needed to make their communities economically competitive.
It makes sense, given that Texas places such a heavy burden on local taxpayers to fund our public education system, paying on average just 40 percent of what it costs a local school district to educate our kids. Every time that percentage shrinks, rural communities with a smaller tax base have to decide between cutting extracurricular programming, postponing teacher pay raises, or making some other cut at the detriment of teacher welfare and student learning.
These are big challenges in rural towns, but if I’ve learned anything from folks in North Texas, it’s that they already know exactly how to meet these challenges. They don’t need anyone to “fix” anything for them — they just want a governor to partner with them and meet them halfway in guaranteeing affordable broadband, health care expansion, equitable school funding, and fair teacher pay.
That’s the only way we’re going to give young people a reason to stay, raise a family, start businesses, and create new jobs in these places.
That’s the only way that rural communities—and, in turn, the rest of Texas—will thrive.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke from El Paso is running for governor in the March 1 Democratic Primary.