Buried near the 40-minute mark of the surreptitious recording of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the far-right Empower Texans head Michael Q. Sullivan was a brief exchange that spelled out the antipathy many in the state Legislature feel toward Texas’ cities:
Dennis Bonnen: In this office, in the conference room at that end, any mayor or county judge who’s dumbass 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.
Dustin Burrows: I hope the next session is even worse.
Dennis Bonnen: And I’m all for that.
The quote made it around certain Twitter circles yesterday morning. The plain language explained what plenty of bills have done in recent legislative sessions: kneecap urban areas from passing policy the Lege doesn’t want. Last year came reform bills that capped the rate at which cities can raise property taxes. The Lege banned red light cameras. It blocked cities from charging private telecommunication companies for using public right of way, particularly concerning when you think of all the impending 5G infrastructure.
Houston estimates that not charging telecom companies for right of way will cost it $27 million per year. Taken altogether, the bills passed by the Lege will create a $44 million annual shortfall for the city of Dallas by 2023, according to a budget forecast. Even Moody’s found the property tax reform law would generate “minimal” homeowner savings but would “hurt local governments substantially.” That sounds like a plan to screw local governments more than provide relief to taxpayers.
Burrows, the Lubbock state representative who was also heard spouting off on the tape, later added, “We hate cities and counties.” He told Sullivan he had pitched the governor on taking away what cities can use from sales tax to pay for economic development, public transit, or other services.
These strategies aren’t new. A report published this summer by the Local Solutions Support Center and the State Innovations Exchange said the trend of limiting municipal policy power began in 2011. As our Peter Simek reported, the report said the trend is “being driven by special interests, and the new bills filed in state legislatures throughout the country tend to gravitate toward laws that limit local governments’ ability to regulate businesses and protect civil rights.”
But rarely do we get to hear one of the most powerful members of the Lege spell it out. And, according to former Mayor Mike Rawlings, the speaker’s quote was accurate.
“I met with [Bonnen], and he made it very clear that he was not a fan of us mayors,” Rawlings told D Magazine. “I’m gonna say there were about eight of us that met with him. He said some things that questioned our integrity, and I actually took offense to it, and I challenged him. I said, ‘Are you questioning our motivation?’ ”
Mayor Eric Johnson, himself a former state representative, hasn’t yet commented on the tape. (We’ve asked to chat, but he’s in a City Council meeting and wasn’t available yesterday. We’ll update when we hear back.) But Rawlings said he and a group of mayors from Texas’ largest cities met with Bonnen last spring to express their views about property tax reform. He said they were “trying to find some common ground.” He didn’t find it.
“[Bonnen] says, ‘I can’t even make a deal with you guys because it’ll change.’ And I didn’t even know what he was talking about, and I don’t even know if anybody else knew what he was talking about,” Rawlings said. “This has been going on a long time in Austin. There’s been an attack on cities.”
Bonnen’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. County Judge Clay Jenkins said he met with Bonnen, but not “substantively on the issue of the rollback rate.”
“The tape is disturbing,” Jenkins said. “Many of the comments on it about cities, counties, and colleagues show a prejudice that is unwelcome and unhelpful in a leader.”
The Center for Public Policy Priorities identified 62 preemption bills in the last session alone. An example: One of those that failed tried to block local governments from passing anything that mandated employment benefits.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott also spelled it out in June of 2017 when he called a special session, albeit less colloquially and more narrowly tailored. He said he intended to “reduce, restrict, and prohibit local regulations.” He has decried laws that blocked the sale of plastic bags, others that stopped fracking, and even tree cutting. “We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model,” the governor said in 2016.
None of this is particularly surprising for the representatives who lobby on behalf of the city.
“As chair of the Ad Hoc Legislative Committee for the city, as the elected person who lobbies on behalf of the city, I can’t even get in to meet with the governor, the lieutenant governor, or the speaker,” said Councilman Lee Kleinman, who chaired that City Council committee during the last session. “They don’t want to hear from us, much less help us. And it’s very distressing because we have a lot of things we’re trying to resolve here.”
Kleinman, who says he is a conservative, says that the Dallas delegation is “very supportive of the city and the things we’re trying to do,” but often lacks the numbers to win floor votes. As it stands, much of the city’s work has to do with clarifying language in bills that could harm their ability to pass policy.
“It’s because you have your Collin counties and your Denton counties and, to some degree, your Tarrant County legislators who get down to Austin and put their cowboy boots on and think they’re down on the ranch despite the fact that they live down on Loop 820,” Kleinman said. “It is very difficult to move positive legislation forward.”
Kleinman said he hopes the topic continues to generate public interest. Redrawn districts in 2011 led to a flood of suburban representatives who represented more affluent suburbs and exurbs. Not long after came the war on local control and your Freedom Caucus, the Matt Rinaldis (Republican of Carrollton) and Jeff Leaches (Republican of Plano) and Jonathan Sticklands (Republican of Bedford) who desired little more than to thwart city abilities to legislate on their own terms. (Leach left the Caucus in 2018, Stickland isn’t running again, and Rinaldi got beat by Democrat Julie Johnson in the last election.)
According to the state demographer, 84.7 percent of Texas residents lived in urban areas even in 2010. However, municipalities account for only about 4 percent of the state’s land mass. That also creates a friction in priorities at the statehouse, which has, in recent years, used its Republican control to spike local policy that creates what legislators refer to as a “patchwork quilt” of regulations.
The recording reveals the real reasons why.