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July 27, 2004     (512) 463-0300

Rural Economy Subject of Senate Hearing

The Texas Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations is taking a close look at rural Texas, examining needs in regard to health care, infrastructure, economic development and housing. Today, July 27, 2004, the committee held a hearing in Austin that examined all these issues.

Bryan Daniel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was the first witness. He told the committee that while USDA is one of the few federal organizations that can affect every aspect of rural development, local leadership is critical to ensuring that assistance from their programs gets to where it's needed. During the past two years, he said that USDA has made more than $850 million dollars in loans and grants for rural development in Texas. In addition to crop loans, USDA administers home improvement loans and many other types of assistance that encourage rural development.

Martin Hubert from the Texas Department of Agriculture explained that agency's rural development efforts. Those include various rural economic development efforts to revitalize historical rural buildings, encourage food and fiber processing in rural areas and encouraging rural tourism as well as TDA's support of Texas agriculture.

John Henneberger from the Texas Low Income Housing Service and Edwina Carrington of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs described the challenges that Texans who are in need of affordable housing face and a preview of an upcoming report on housing conditions for Texas farm workers in the Panhandle. Henneberger described conditions that, while inspected by the Texas Department of Health, were clearly substandard. Henneberger said that when asked, the health department said the poor inspection record was due to state budget cutbacks. He also said that $15 million dollars in federal money for housing assistance to the homeless had been lost simply because the state had not applied for the funds.

Connie Berry from the Texas Department of Health described how that agency is working to increase health care options for Texans in rural areas. Patti Patterson of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and Mary Wainwright of the East Texas Area Health Education Center testified about the difficulties involved in convincing recent graduates of medical schools to locate and continue practicing in rural areas. Patterson described the greatest challenge to health care by saying: "rural Texas is older , poorer, and less likely to be insured than the rest of Texas. It is also more likely to be obese." One of the most telling statistics is that more than 60 Texas counties have no hospital.

Jim Ray from the Texas Association of Regional Councils followed, saying they approach rural development on a regional basis, bringing local governments together so they can accomplish more together than they can alone. Donna Chatahm, from the Association of Rural Communities in Texas said the lack of capital is a problem in that rural counties have a "need to attract and entrepreneurs and maintain the retail businesses they have".

Amadeo Saenz of the Texas Department of Transportation testified that his agency is trying to create a "seamless transportation network" that can connect urban to rural Texas. Kevin Ward from the Texas Water Development Board described the programs his agency administers to bring water and wastewater systems to the impoverished areas of the state. He also said that established systems are having difficulties just maintaining their treatment plants. Also scheduled to testify today was Sam Tessen, Executive Director of the Office of Rural Community Affairs.

The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs is chaired by Senator Frank Madla. Members include Senators Kim Brimer, vice-chair, Bob Deuell, Mario Gallegos and Jeff Wentworth. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.

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