Many Texas city leaders are fuming over comments Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) made in a recently leaked conversation that made clear his plans to thwart the efforts of cities and counties through State preemption.
Local officials and others responded Wednesday to Bonnen’s statements saying the speaker’s cavalier attitude toward cities, many of which have elected centrist or left-leaning city officials, defies the needs of Texas residents.
“Any mayor, county judge that was dumb ass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties,” Bonnen said in the recording, adding the next session would be worse.
“It has created a rift in trust,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, who represents the Southeast District 3. “We all have to work together. If our job is to serve the people of Texas and our communities, having this kind of dismissiveness breaks trust.”
Bonnen made the comments in a more-than-hour-long conversation with Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative firebrand, and Republican State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, which determines how the Legislature disburses funds after each legislative session.
During the exchange, Bonnen offered Sullivan media access to the House floor. In exchange, he sought political revenge on House members that did not support legislation designed to seize control from local government on such matters as cities and counties paying for lobbyists using tax dollars.
Local governments, especially large municipalities, and State lawmakers have been increasingly at odds in the past few legislative sessions, as the Legislature has passed a handful of bills often aimed at preempting ordinances in those cities. San Antonio City Council, in particular, has squared off with the Legislature, on issues as wide-ranging as tree preservation and the local minimum wage.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) was elected to that office in 2015 after serving as a San Antonio city councilman. Fighting for local control has been an ongoing issue for San Antonio and other large municipalities, but the GOP-led Legislature has ratcheted up the attacks on cities’ policies in recent years, Bernal said.
“We always had to beat them back, and we were able to survive,” he said. “But there’s always a threat, and right after I got there was when they really started to take the gloves off.”
In Charlie Cotrell’s observation, the local control issue is not new. The St. Mary’s University political science professor said it’s part of a decades-long struggle for power between rural communities and urban areas. Tying the issue to partisan gerrymandering, which he said contributes to the disproportionate influence of rural Texas on State representation, Cotrell predicted the power struggle would go on into the next legislative session in 2021 unless Democrats flipped several seats in the House.
That, he said, would bring at least “a modicum of fairness to the redrawing of districts” set to take place during the next session after the decennial census in 2020.
Rep. Ina Minjarez, a Democratic member of the House committee charged with redrawing those maps, said it remains to be seen how that process will play out, and the outcome of the next State elections will factor heavily into the districts that are ultimately drawn.
“If we get a new speaker, is he or she going to keep the same committee members for the redistricting committee?” Minjarez asked rhetorically. “Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s all going to depend on the election results and the makeup of the House at that time.”
Bonnen’s comments revealed his animosity toward cities, said Bennet Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. Composed of 1,160 Texas cities, the organization advocates on behalf of cities and city officials.
“This is a new level of just vindictive desire to punish cities for no good reason other than to see them squirm,” Sandlin said.
Sandlin said TML members are fired up over Bonnen’s comments but said the speaker’s comments aren’t a sweeping reflection of State lawmakers on either side of the aisle.
He called on State legislators and local elected officials to communicate honestly and show mutual respect.
State preemption of local policies isn’t unique to Texas, however.
“My counterparts across the country are facing this issue,” he said, adding the idea has originated from national think tanks, such as the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, but “we haven’t seen it personalized in this way. This is a new level that’s alarming to city officials.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he wasn’t surprised by Bonnen’s comments, which he said are part and parcel of an anti-city agenda by some members of the Legislature. However, that won’t change how the City deals with the Texas Legislature, Nirenberg said.
“We’re still looking for collaboration. We’re still looking for services and infrastructure that work for the constituents we both serve,” he said. “The telenovela that’s developed between Michael Quinn Sullivan, Dustin Burrows, and Speaker Bonnen is distracting drama for the mission that we all should be serving.”
Bonnen’s and Burrow’s statements in that recording will provide ammunition as Democrats seek to flip the State House, which has been under Republican control for decades, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a Democrat.
“It’s going to be a big campaign issue,” Wolff said. “Now we know what’s said behind closed doors. There will be an uprising, I would think.”
Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick contributed to this report.