Most residents of urban Texas have probably never heard of the Texas Department of Rural Affairs. It is an obscure state agency that was originally known as the Office of Rural Community Affairs upon its creation in 2001. TDRA was part of then-speaker Pete Laney’s effort to bolster rural Texas as the window closed on 130 years of Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives. Laney knew not only that his days as speaker were numbered, but that all of rural Texas would be left behind as Texas became more and more urbanized. TDRA’s main function is to bring federal funds to rural Texas, which it has done by leveraging the agency’s small amount of GR into federal grants totaling $470 million. These grants were used to support water and sewage improvements that rural towns could not afford to make. Ten years after Laney last presided over the House, TDRA finds itself on the endangered list, a target of government reform. Today, Bill Callegari’s Government Efficiency & Reform committee will hear HB 1982, “relating to transferring the Texas Department of Rural Affairs to the Office of Rural Affairs within the Department of Agriculture and abolishing the board of the Texas Department of Rural Affairs.” A staffer of a rural rep who has been following this saga told me a little of the background. The federal funds that TDRA distributes are a political plum. Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples reportedly sees an opportunity here to raise his profile by handing out big checks to towns and hospitals and fire departments in rural Texas. I’m not being critical of Staples here. This is what politicians do. But the agency’s former chairman, Fredericksburg rancher Wallace Klussmann, has written Callegari to make the point that the programs TDRA supports may be lost in a larger agency like the Department of Agriculture, and that rural communities may not see the same degree of service and attention from the much larger Department of Agriculture than they received from TDRA. As the headline says, this is not a very important story. But it is one of those canaries-in-a-coal-mine tales that tell us what is taking place around us. And one of the things that is taking place around with accelerating speed is the loss of population, political influence, and opportunties for a better life of rural Texas.
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