Could Retribution for an Anti-City Vote Bring Down Speaker Bonnen?

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Stephen Spillman / Freelance

Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) presides over an amendment vote at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

Could a quietly roiling political scandal that could well bring down the powerful speaker of the Texas House of Representatives have something to do with the Republican war against Texas cities?

After a very successful rookie session replacing San Antonian Joe Straus as House speaker, Republican Dennis Bonnen engaged in a stunning act of hypocritical perfidy – including against Straus’s successor, State Rep. Steve Allison – that is being investigated by the Texas Rangers for possible criminal implications.

Bonnen had engineered a very productive session – most notably presiding over passage of the first school-finance reform bill in memory not mandated by the Texas Supreme Court – while avoiding a number of contentious social-issue bills such as the “bathroom bill” of the previous session.

Toward the end of the session, Bonnen was given a bipartisan standing ovation on the House floor for his leadership on the education bill. Just a few days later he reached near heroic status for pledging to protect incumbents of both parties by threatening that anyone who campaigned against colleagues in the next primary would be treated harshly by him in the next session, likely receiving no good committee assignments and finding their bills sabotaged.

So it was a staggering act of hypocrisy when he later quietly met with Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of a well-funded right-wing group called Empower Texans, and provided him with a list of 10 Republican incumbents, suggesting that it would be very helpful if Empower Texans would seek to unseat them. 

Sullivan, who had been bitterly critical of Bonnen’s leadership and referred in a tweet to the Legislature’s “loser session,” spilled the beans on the secret meeting. Bonnen denied providing Sullivan the hit list, so Sullivan revealed the existence of a tape he secretly made that confirmed such a list was offered, through an associate at the meeting.

What did the 10 on Bonnen’s would-be hit list have in common? They all voted against one of Bonnen’s pet bills, a measure that would have made it illegal for cities, counties, school districts, and other local government agencies to hire lobbyists to represent them at the state legislature and in Washington. 

It’s a very bad bill that had been pushed for years by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Speaker Straus had made sure it didn’t see the light of day in previous sessions, but Bonnen signed on as a co-author. 

The only Bexar County legislator on the hit list was, somewhat ironically, Straus’s successor, Allison, to whom Bonnen had made an in-kind contribution of $20,000 earlier this year. While he was a rookie in the 86th Legislature, Allison is no stranger to local government. He has served on both the Alamo Heights school board and on the VIA Metropolitan Transit board. Like Straus, he is not an ideologue. He is conservative, but he wants government to work.

Bonnen’s bill would not only have prohibited local governments from hiring lobbyists, but it also would have barred them from belonging to associations that hire lobbyists. So the school board would not have been able to belong, at a very modest cost, to the Texas Association of School Boards, which lobbies on behalf of the more than 1,000 school boards in the state. Likewise the City of San Antonio would have had to quit the Texas Municipal League unless it fired its lobbyists, considerably reducing its value to its members.

Proponents of the bill argued that local officials could simply talk to their legislators and count on them to do what was right by them. But the legislative process is complicated, ornate, and subject to all manner of unexpected and sometimes underhanded developments. Being a good lobbyist is a full-time job that more often than not consists of identifying legislative developments that can hurt a client and getting them killed or at least softened. It’s not a task that can be done from afar, and not something a legislator has time to do on behalf of a wide range of constituents.

An organization such as VIA, which is heavily reliant on federal funds, would be committing malpractice by not having someone in Washington watching out for its interests. 

The bill was clearly part of an anti-city agenda by conservative interests who are fully aware that cities by their nature tend to be progressive and led by Democrats. These conservative interests filed more than 150 anti-city bills last session, with mixed results. They put a severe revenue cap on local governments, replacing an 8 percent cap on revenues that allowed citizens to gather signatures to force a vote on the tax rate. Now a 3.5 percent cap automatically triggers a vote if it is exceeded. They also barred cities from collecting right-of-way fees for telecommunications companies, at a cost of $7.5 million to San Antonio.

But anti-city forces lost when the Senate failed to advance a bill prohibiting cites from requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave, and they lost the lobbying bill.

What’s stunning is that Bonnen would react by secretly asking a sworn enemy to do something he himself had so publicly criticized – working against incumbents. Being so vindictive against those who vote for the interests of their constituents rather than acceding to the speaker’s desires is, ironically, what led to the downfall of former Speaker Tom Craddick. He was so dictatorial and brutal toward dissenters that eventually some of his top lieutenants joined 11 Republicans who led a revolt and joined with Democrats to elect Straus.

Here was Bonnen basking in the public glow of running a Straus-like session, then secretly plotting against his members as though he were Craddick. Can he survive such underhanded treachery and be re-elected speaker next year? Informed opinion appears to vary from yes it is possible to, amazingly, that it is likely – on one condition. The condition is that Sullivan’s secret tape, now in the hands of the Texas Rangers, does not become public. The tape should be heard by all. Even Bonnen has called for its release. 

The tape reportedly includes very crude references to the sexuality of two Democratic House incumbents. For the full, sleazy nastiness of Bonnen’s language to be released publicly would make it impossible for any Democrat to vote for his re-election as speaker, said one knowledgable source, and almost certainly peel off enough suburban Republicans to sink him.

One last note: Bexar County Republican Lyle Larson also voted against the lobbyist bill but was not on Bonnen’s hit list. A possible reason could be that it would clearly be a futile effort. Gov. Greg Abbott last year gave public support and nearly $136,000 to Larson’s primary opponent, only to watch Larson win with 59 percent of the vote. 

Neither Larson nor Allison returned phone calls by deadline for this report.

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