West Texas’ Rural Values ‘Under Assault’ Lawmaker Says

With the regular and special legislative sessions behind them, area legislators are embarking on the next season — campaign season.

Filing for the March 6 Republican and Democratic primaries begins in less than a month, on Nov. 11, just days after the Nov. 7 election to vote on constitutional amendments proposed by legislators earlier this year.

Though state lawmakers in the conservative Big Country are seemingly safe in their primaries, and in the 2018 general election for that matter, several attending a West Texas Republican meet-and-greet here last week said this time of year is an opportunity to hold town hall meetings and measure the pulse of constituents in their districts.

Abilene’s Stan Lambert, whose District 71 is made up of Jones, Nolan and Taylor counties, told the Stamford attendees that legislators were going to “continue to stay connected, to find out what is important and listen to you.”

West Texas and its rural values is “under assault,” said San Angelo’s Drew Darby, whose nine-county District 72 includes Coke, Howard and Runnels counties in the Big Country.

“West Texas is growing but not as fast as the urban centers,” he said. “There are 19 of us — 19 Stan Lamberts, 19 Drew Darbys, 19 Dustin Burrows — that represent two-thirds of the land mass of Texas, the land west of Interstate 35.”

Flood-ravaged Harris County has 25 state representatives, Darby said.

The Texas House has 150 members.

“In January of ’19, guess who’s going to be wanting your education dollars, guess who’s going to be wanting your water dollars so they can build infrastructures on the coast,” Darby asked. “Guess who’s going to be wanting your transportation dollars — there are over 500 state highways under water, literally under water, in the last disaster.

“Where do you think they are going to get the money? They are going to get it from rural Texas.”

West Texas has to form relationships in the Legislature, he said, and find common ground.

“The last time I checked, they do not raise beef cattle in the back of H-E-B. They do not have a cotton farm in the back of the Men’s Wearhouse. They don’t have producing oil and gas wells in downtown Dallas. The hide, the hair, the food, the fiber, the energy that moves this state comes from rural Texas.”

Darby said he believes West Texas will lose one, maybe two, state representatives with redistricting following the 2020 Census.

State Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, who represents 50 counties and a slim slice of Taylor County, said the good news is that Texas is growing, but he pointed out the newcomers “are not bringing roads and bridges and schools with them.”

In setting the state budget, legislators face the same problem as every school and city in the state — “deferred maintenance,” he said.

“We’ve kicked the can down the road because we have Medicaid and a health care entitlement system that is squeezing every dollar out of our budget,” Perry said.

District 83 State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock said that going back 20 to 30 years, education was the biggest slice of the budget pie, and health and human services was only a small part.

“The cost of health care has gone up significantly more than everything else,” he said. “Since 1980, medical inflation has been two to three times the Consumer Price Index. That means less money available for public education, higher education, roadways and for property tax relief.”

Burrows said in talking to folks from his seven-county district, which includes Mitchell and Scurry counties, most people say their largest expense is health insurance. A family of four spends an average of $17,000 a year on health insurance. By 2019, that figure is expected to be between $22,000 and $30,000, he said, adding people simply can’t afford it.

“I don’t think anything D.C. is going to do is going to fix the underlying culprit, which is medical inflation,” Burrows said. “They’re reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic — that’s what I really see in this.”

Businesses are not growing and not hiring, he said, because they are having to buy health insurance for their employees.

Burrows said reform is needed at the state level on making health care more competitive in price.

In response to a question from the audience, Lambert said the biggest challenge facing area lawmakers is the growth along and east of the I-35 corridor, and to “effectively communicate to urban legislators what the needs are of rural Texas.”

Perry said a “one size fits all” approach won’t work when it comes to education and other issues facing the state. Lueders-Avoca ,with 41 students in high school, has different challenges than a 600-student elementary in Lubbock or an urban district in Houston.

Rural Texas chalked up some wins in the last legislative session, the group noted.

Lambert said prior to the start of the meeting that one of the key pieces of legislation requires an agency to study the impact of rules and regulations on communities under 25,000 before implementation.

For example, Lambert said, if the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department passes a rule prohibiting gassing of rattlesnake dens, then it would have to come up with another plan for harvesting snakes to offset the $4.5 million impact that would be lost with the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.

“I thought it was a good session,” Lambert said. “One thing I learned was you don’t always get everything done in one session. There are multiple issues that will take multiple sessions.”

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