State Representative Trent Ashby (center) answers a question from Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith (left) as State Senator Robert Nichols listens during Thursday’s Rural Texas and 86th Legislature forum held at Angelina College. The event allowed the audience to address those elected officials on a broad range of topics related to growth in East Texas. (Gary Stallard/AC News Service photo)

Angelina College on Thursday hosted the Texas Tribune’s Rural Texas and 86th Legislature forum featuring State Representative Trent Ashby and State Senator Robert Nichols. Texas Tribune CEO and Co-Founder Evan Smith served as the panel’s host, while Ashby and Nichols fielded questions from Smith and the audience.

Those topics ranged from gun reform in response to recent mass shootings in the state to education reform, health care, property taxes, transportation and expanding broad band access to rural areas.

“We do about 50 events every year around the state where we put elected officials or other newsmakers up on the stage in front of a live audience, on the record and open to the public, free to attend,” Smith said. “We ask questions about the work being done on behalf of the people in the room. These speakers are often people who represent communities, constituents, voters, and in the room are the people they represent. We want the people to hear from their elected representatives: ‘Here’s what we did or did not do on public education,’ or ‘Here’s what we did or did not do on infrastructure or health care,’ and other topics.”

Smith said the event’s focus around the state is to include the rural areas of Texas, which he said don’t often have enough of a voice in the state legislature.

“East Texas is not in the conversation in Austin enough,” Smith said. “We hear a lot about the big cities and other parts of the state, but we have to have a deliberate and intentional focus on East Texas because it is a big part of the state. The decisions made in Austin affect those folks here every bit as much as they affect the people living in the big cities.

“So when we travel around the state, we especially try to go to the places where there is not a regular conversation of this kind going on. Bring those elected officials back home and have them talk in front of the people they represent.”

A relationship with area leaders helped bring Thursday’s event to Lufkin, according to Smith.

“We have a great relationship with many folks here, but especially with Wynn Rosser and Ellen Temple and a number of other people at the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, among other foundations, who have helped us turn intentionally toward rural Texas.”

Smith cited the changing population in the state’s rural areas as evidence of the need for more support from the state legislature.

“Right now, more than 85 percent of the state’s population lives east of I-35,” Smith said. “The overall population in Texas is going to grow from 29 million today to 54.5 million by 2050. All but about five percent of that growth is going to be in the 82 metropolitan counties in Texas. It’s not like the trend line is going to reverse. There are still about 1.5 million people in Texas who live in rural communities, and that’s a conservative estimate.

“So there are a lot of people living here. There’s a big need for public education, for health care – more rural hospitals have closed in the last 10 years in Texas than in any other state. A big need for infrastructure investment, economic development, including broad band access, which is not where it needs to be in rural Texas. We need legislature’s attention to turn more toward rural because there are a lot of people here who need something from Austin. Not big government, but the kinds of services the rest of us in the state get without having to think about it.”

Smith also pointed out the need for East Texas to grow its economy in order to keep its talented youth closer to home.

“A lot of kids are growing up in East Texas, going away to college and then not coming back,” Smith said. “There’s no economy, no industry.

“The question is, does rural Texas put up its hands and a white flag and give up, or does it fight for the opportunity to rebuild from within and create the economic opportunity that keeps the population here and allows the area to grow?”

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Sports Information Director Gary Stallard, who also serves as a Liberal Arts Instructor, begins his eleventh season with Angelina College. Following a career as a U.S. Marine, Stallard completed his bachelor’s degree at Stephen F. Austin University, where he majored in English and Journalism. For more than 16 years, he has worked as a sports writer/columnist/photographer for the Lufkin Daily News; he continues to contribute free-lance articles on occasion. Stallard has won several awards for writing, including the Golden Hoops Award for basketball writing in 2003, Regional Sports Writer of the Year in 2004, and the Texas Press Association’s first-place award for column writing in 2007 and in 2014. He has also done basketball, football and baseball radio and live streaming play-by- play and color commentary for an ESPN affiliate. Currently Stallard serves as play-by-play broadcaster for AC basketball, baseball and softball games. Prior to arriving at Angelina College, Stallard taught English at Lufkin High School for four years. He currently teaches Developmental Writing classes at AC. He and his wife Susan live in Lufkin.