Politics & Government

Mayor Johnson Writes About the Legislative Hate Toward Cities

It's a statement, but we had some questions about what he saw as a state legislator.

In the wake of Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s antipathetic comments about cities and counties, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson has taken to the editorial page of the Dallas Morning News to share his thoughts.

A summary: he’s not happy about the speaker admitting his intent to screw over local governments during the last legislative session; city matters aren’t partisan, anyhow; and the state should be working with its major cities to further the growth that has fueled Texas’ success in the last decade.

“As both a former state representative and as the mayor of Texas’ third-largest city, I find it appalling that the speaker of the Texas House holds in such contempt mayors who simply want to have a conversation with him regarding the important issues facing our mutual constituents,” he writes.

I wrote about all this yesterday, and Councilman Lee Kleinman was one of the people I got on the phone. One of his jobs, as the chair of the Ad Hoc Legislative Committee, was to go down to Austin to lobby on behalf of the city. He told me he can’t get meetings with the governor, lieutenant governor, or the speaker. But, he noted, the Dallas delegation “is very supportive of the city and the things we’re trying to do, but outside of the major urban areas, it’s very much an assault on the municipalities.”

Kleinman told me that a good chunk of the legislative work that city delegations have to do is killing bad bills. And some of those are hard to find. He spoke of the practice of “bracketing.” That’s when a bill may target a city but not use its name. Kleinman said, “You write in the bill, ‘municipality that’s between 1.2 million and 1.4 million people along the Trinity River’ … so you can’t do a word search of Dallas.

“Some of it you know is coming, like the tax cap situation,” he said, referring to the law that capped the rate at which cities can raise property taxes. “But in others, some of it is very hidden. That’s not uncommon.”

Bracketing was one of the things noted by the Texas Municipal League in its legislative round-up after the session ended: “The tendency to ‘bracket’ legislation to a certain size city, which is typically opposed by the League, is a disturbing trend that warrants further study prior to next session.”

Bonnen’s comments—“my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties”—should make cities and counties pay close attention. There have been plenty of preemptive bills in recent years, but hearing the sentiment so directly expressed should spur a deeper dive into the operations of the Legislature and how its decisions affect local governments. That’s where things like “bracketing” come in, sneaky ways to hamstring cities. And sometimes, legislators with no tie to the area have big say over significant legislation for cities. Kleinman recalled the previous session when state Rep. Dan Flynn, a Republican from the speck of a town that is Van, Texas, was charged with solving the police and fire pension mess.

“There was a conflict of interest there; his son [Editor’s note: It’s actually his son-in-law] was a Dallas firefighter,” Kleinman said. “And our Dallas delegation had little to no input in that thing.”

Flynn, however, had a long history in banking and was the chairman of the Texas House’s pension committee. He also disputes that the delegation had “little to no input” into the bill, and said that he worked closely with the mayor and the many police and fire associations in the city to craft it. Years later, it is now solvent.

Johnson was a state representative for more than nine years. He’s in a unique position now as mayor. In his editorial, he touches on how he believes the state and the city should collaborate: the state providing support for big corporate relocations like Uber and resources for when crime gets out of hand, like when the governor sent DPS troopers to South Dallas.

But he could also elaborate on how city-representing legislators have to navigate the politics of the suburbs and blood-red rural parts of the state, the bomb throwers who want nothing more than to strike the ability of cities and counties to regulate themselves. What was it like for Johnson in the Legislature? Did he see these strategies firsthand? How did he handle them? His editorial doesn’t address any of that. It would be great if he’d speak to a reporter about his experience. If not D Magazine, then, hell, CultureMap. We don’t care.

Lubbock state Rep. Dustin Burrows spelled out his feelings quite directly in the Bonnen recording: “We hate cities and counties.”

At least now we know the game.

CorrectionA previous version of the story quoted Kleinman as saying Flynn’s son was a Dallas firefighter. It is a son-in-law. A response from Flynn has also been added. 

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