Despite his earlier reputation as a hatchet man for environmental regulation bills, activists are cautiously optimistic that they can find common ground with Bonnen as speaker.
As chair of the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation from 2003 to 2008, Representative Dennis Bonnen was labeled a “tyrant,” a “Clean Air Villain” and consistently rated among the worst lawmakers in the Legislature by environmental activists. The Gulf Coast Republican often berated environmentalists and public officials, earning him the nickname “Dennis the Menace.” Environmental bills opposed by polluting industries rarely got hearings, typically dying a slow death in Bonnen’s committee.
“He was quite a handful,” recalled Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who has been lobbying at the Legislature since the late 1990s. “He was kind of unusual for a Texas legislator in that he was a lot more hostile to witnesses. He could be quite intimidating to the people who came there.”
But Schneider and other environmental advocates say his petulant behavior has waned in recent years, particularly after 2009, when Joe Straus became speaker of the House and Bonnen was reassigned to a different committee. While the change hasn’t been total, Bonnen matured, advocates say; he’s not exactly friendly to environmental causes, but he’s willing to find compromises.
Now, Bonnen is set to ascend to speaker of the Texas House in January. That leaves environmental advocates eyeing the 86th Legislature with feelings somewhere between mild apprehension and cautious optimism.
“Representative Bonnen’s voting record under Straus has been better than under [former speaker Tom] Craddick,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “The question is, is he going to be more like [he was] under Craddick or Straus.”
A spokesperson for Bonnen declined to comment on his environmental priorities, saying they would not issue statements until after he’s elected speaker in January. But a closer look at his legislative record provides a few hints.
Bonnen was first elected to the Texas House in 1996 at the age of 24, just two years after graduating from St. Edward’s University with a degree in political science. A banker at the time, Bonnen whipped his Democratic opponent by almost 34 percentage points to represent Brazoria County, a boggy coastal enclave that hosts a vast complex of petrochemical plants, including the 5,000-acre Dow Chemical plant.
In his first few sessions, Bonnen’s legislative achievements were modest, passing bills to improve drainage systems and protect the interests of the insurance industry. His colleagues labeled him “the pig guy” after he purchased $350 worth of pork chops and sausage with campaign funds and asked at a lecture on state ethics laws if it was illegal to eat it.
Bonnen gained notoriety and influence in 2003 when Midland oilman Tom Craddick became speaker. Craddick was known for his hard-nosed, top-down management of the House, power that he wielded largely in the service of corporate interests. Bonnen was picked to oversee the House Committee on Environmental Regulation, which quickly became known as a graveyard for environmental legislation, including bills that would’ve increased penalties for polluters and regulated cancer-causing chemicals.
He also went out of his way to support corporate interests. In 2003, he introduced a bill that prevented criminal charges from being filed against polluters. In 2005, he scored zero percent on the legislative scorecard published by Environment Texas. The next year, during the election cycle, about a third of his campaign contributions were from the oil and gas industry.
In 2007, a year during which Bonnen’s committee didn’t even meet for more than two months, the Environmental Defense Fund spent $17,000 on radio ads and billboards labeling him “Dennis the Menace” and asking listeners to “Tell Bonnen to do his job and protect the air we breathe or get off the environment committee.”
When the committee did meet, Bonnen was often remarkably hostile to witnesses. In one instance in 2007, while discussing a bill to stop Austin from disposing of waste in a Cedar Park quarry, Bonnen harangued Austin city employees, asking them a second question before they could answer the first and criticizing a city attorney for their handwriting on an affidavit. When Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, pointed out during one hearing that the Washington, D.C.-based Clean Air Trust had named him “Clean Air Villain of the Month,” he grinned and said he was “quite proud of that honor.”
More recently, though, under the mild-mannered Speaker Straus, Bonnen has in some cases been willing to work with environmental groups to find middle ground. For the 2013 legislative session, he scored 43 percent and was voted “most improved” by the Texas League of Conservation Voters. That year he voted in favor of bills that increased funding for clean air programs and strengthened penalties for pipeline companies that flouted safety rules. Notably, his contributions from the oil and gas industry have declined. Between 2013 and 2016, just 7 percent of his campaign funds came from Big Oil.
“He’s pretty pragmatic and aligns with the industry position,” said Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. “Where he did things we agreed on were issues where it didn’t impact industry so directly.” Reed cited Bonnen’s support of funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP), a program established by the Legislature in 2001 to use fees from vehicle inspections and sales to fund improvements in air quality. Since reductions in smog reduces the regulatory burden on industry, businesses have supported TERP, which in turn garnered support from Bonnen, Reed said.
Funding for TERP and a tax abatement program that benefits wind and solar power could be on the chopping block in 2019. Environmental advocates hope Bonnen will be an ally. Lawmakers in the House have also pre-filed bills that require state agencies to incorporate climate change into planning for water management and posting environmental permits online. If elected speaker, Bonnen will choose committee chairs and have considerable sway over which bills advance through the process.
Metzger said that strong environmental protections and public health measures stand to benefit constituents in Bonnen’s district, which is overrun with polluting industries. “It hasn’t been a priority it seems heretofore, but hope springs eternal,” he said.