LUBBOCK, Texas — Leaders in state government, education, healthcare and business gathered at Texas Tech Thursday to kick off “The Future of Rural Texas,” a two-day event hosted by The Texas Tribune focusing on the unique challenges facing rural Texans.

“Rural Texans deserve, have earned and have a right to expect so much more than they’re getting,” the Tribune’s co-founder Evan Smith told the crowd to open the event.

Smith hosted a preview of the 88th legislative session featuring state representatives Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), Eddie Morales Jr. (D-Eagle Pass) and Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa). The panel covered rural issues stemming from inequitable opportunities in education, healthcare and broadband access.

Rep. Burrows repeated his calls to amend Texas’ higher education funding, emphasizing that he believes top leaders support creating new sources of funding for Texas Tech and other public universities.

“This is the number one priority I have next session — to make sure we recognize that there are more than two public universities in Texas,” Burrows said, referencing the often-criticized Permanent University Fund. That endowment is enshrined in the Texas Constitution and reserves billions of dollars created on West Texas land for the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems.

Rep. Landgraf, an Aggie, and Rep. Morales, a Longhorn, both voiced their support for sharing the Permanent University Fund. Any amendment to the fund would require a constitutional amendment and is thus unlikely to pass this session, but Burrows said he is optimistic state leaders can find a solution.

“The House and the Senate and the Governor are fully supportive of if not giving access to the PUF, which would be very nice, creating a standalone endowment which would rival it,” he said.

The Permanent University Fund is just one example of an inequity seen in Texas’ urban-rural divide. The Texas Tribune emphasizes that in the last decade, more than half of Texas counties lost population, all of them rural. Small school districts and hospitals have been bleeding staff, and Texas cotton farmers are projected to lose $2 billion to this year’s drought.

“Our purpose over the next 24 hours will be to nod to the legacy and the heritage, to own the challenges faced, and to embrace the possibilities ahead,” Smith said.

“The Future of Rural Texas” reconvenes at 8:00 a.m. at the Texas Tech Alumni Center. You can find the full schedule and register here.