Senator Lucio's Letterhead

CAPITOL UPDATE FROM SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 21, 2008
CONTACT: Doris Sanchez , Press Secretary
Phone: (512) 463-0385

Meeting the Needs of Distressed and Rural Areas of Texas

Addressing the needs of rural and distressed communities in Texas should be a high priority this upcoming legislative session.

The International Relations and Trade (IRT) Committee I chair recently held a fact finding hearing on these matters.

Under the leadership of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, one of many directives assigned the committee was to develop legislative recommendations that would better provide border and rural communities access to state and federal resources. We were instructed to review programs by other states to increase the competitiveness of rural communities, engender critical development, provide affordable housing, identify community assets and retain/create wealth and regional jobs.

Texas has the nation's largest rural population. One in seven Texans works in agriculture. Between 1990 and 2000, the state's rural population grew at a fast rate, behind only Georgia and North Carolina.

A comprehensive solution is needed since many of the state's predominantly rural counties face poverty rates of 20 percent, compared to 16.5 percent for more metropolitan areas. Border counties have an alarming 46 percent poverty rate. Although the average age of South Texans is 25, their lack of education and job skills training creates unemployment and poverty like rural communities with predominantly older residents.

The demographics of rural Texas will help drive our economic and community development solution.

According to State Demographer Karl Eschbach, rural communities tend to have an excess of older persons and relatively few working age individuals compared to metropolitan regions. The lack of jobs fails to attract young workers and the lack of young workers fails to attract businesses to the area. Entrepreneurship is stymied even for existing business owners, because of the lack of workforce.

Last legislative session we worked on several initiatives to begin addressing the needs of rural communities. One bill gave the Office of Rural Community Affairs (ORCA) a charge to serve as a clearinghouse for information and resources on all state and federal programs affecting rural communities.

At our hearing, Executive Director Charlie Stone reported that ORCA's Grants and Funding Clearinghouse website: www.orca.state.tx.us/index.php/Home/Grants+Clearinghouse is in operation and provides rural communities extensive information, including funding opportunities, and tools for writing and seeking grants.

However, Mr. Stone requested that the comprehensive rural development bill that my committee recommended last interim and which I authored last session, Senate Bill 1485, be reintroduced during the upcoming session.

These sentiments were echoed by many officials and activists from across the state who participated in our hearing because my bill incorporated the best practices and latest reforms in rural development from across the nation.

"Legislation of this type would certainly provide ORCA with the toolkit needed to address long standing challenges facing rural and Border communities and help those communities to increase their competitiveness," stated Mr. Stone.

Director of State Policy Programs for Rural Policy Research Institute Bobby Gierisch offered his assistance. He said, "A successor to SB 1485 is very necessary, and I look forward to working with you, your staff, ORCA and others on creating the very best programs possible."

My committee is presently drafting our Interim Report in which we will present a strong case for a comprehensive solution, such as SB 1485, to the state's rural needs.

I am committed to reintroducing this legislation and working with my colleagues to establish the Texas Rural Development Fund to improve the state's current rural-focused activities. In doing so, we would provide the resources that address the critical needs of capacity or leadership enhancement and community asset identification. Regional planning and partnership information would be additional components.

Through this initiative, we could provide the funding to support youth and leadership development to stem the tide of youth outmigration and dropout rates. We could also enhance wealth creation, rural entrepreneurship, business innovation and job creation.

The Texas Comptroller's Office reports that to increase economic development in rural areas, we should focus on workforce training and infrastructure development. While communities should recruit businesses, they should also encourage entrepreneurship, since almost 80 percent of new job creation is by existing community businesses.

The Association for Rural Communities in Texas (ARCIT) has identified the need for job creation/retention; youth retention through workforce development; and promotion of regional economic development as our three top rural needs. All of these, reported ARCIT's Executive Director Donna Chatham, would be covered in SB 1485.

Through the support of those who testified at our IRT hearing, we will develop the right initiatives, such as those envisioned in my SB 1485, to adopt the programs from across the country that would truly create comprehensive rural community development and growth.

As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact Doris Sanchez, my press secretary, 512-463-0385.

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