Column: Help is on the way for Far West Texas

Last week, I voted to approve Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), which allocates the $16.3 billion of federal funds designated for Texas in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Senate Bill 8 will provide an infusion of resources to help turn the tide on the pandemic, address its economic fallout, and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery for Far West Texas.

Far West Texas was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Presidio, Culberson, Hudspeth and Jeff Davis counties are all medically underserved areas. The same sprawling, rural landscape that draws many to this region can also make it difficult to receive appropriate medical attention, and has left many residents without reliable care. With the pandemic placing a greater strain on the region’s already limited medical infrastructure, Far West Texas is in need of help.

Thankfully, SB 8 appropriates millions to rural communities to help keep their hospitals staffed and supplied with necessary resources. The bill allocates $75 million for rural hospitals and over $2 billion for state and local hospital surge staffing, purchasing of therapeutic drugs, and the continuation of regional infusion centers related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, SB 8 provides $15 million to expand a mental health facility in West Texas. Now, more than ever, mental health resources are needed in West Texas as rates of depression, anxiety, and negative coping mechanisms have increased since the start of the pandemic. The support provided for rural hospitals, regional infusion centers and the West Texas mental health facility will help Far West Texans receive the medical treatment they need to live happy, healthy lives.

The pandemic exposed just how great the digital divide is in Texas, especially among rural communities. Many families without access to broadband were left behind as education, commerce, healthcare and entertainment moved online. Reliable access to internet and cell phone service is a basic necessity in modern day Texas. The additional $500 million for broadband infrastructure will help close the digital divide and provide more Far West Texans with internet access.

The initial job losses and decrease in economic activity from COVID-19 were staggering. While COVID-19 conditions are improving, West Texas is still recovering from the economic impact of the pandemic. From Marfa’s art scene to the McDonald Observatory and Big Bend State and National Parks, tourism is a vital part of Far West Texas’s economy. The pandemic forced many of the region’s attractions to limit their services which impacted the amount of business brought to local vendors and business owners. The loss of revenue led to reduced salaries, unemployment, and even the closure of long-standing businesses.

It is vital that Far West Texans receive the assistance they need to recover from the economic recession. SB 8 provides over $7 billion to the Unemployment Compensation Fund, $15 million for Texas reskilling and upskilling through education, and $200 million for the Trusteed Programs within the Office of the Governor to implement a new tourism, travel, hospitality and business recovery grant program. The influx of funds to support economic recovery will allow West Texans to get back on their feet faster and help keep local stores afloat.

The funds appropriated through Senate Bill 8 will make West Texas healthier, more resilient and help bring back jobs. I am proud to have voted for this bill to send billions of dollars for relief and recovery to our communities hit hardest by the pandemic. Help is on the way for Far West Texas!

Senator César J. Blanco proudly represents the people of Culberson, El Paso, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties in the Texas Senate.