House Speaker Dennis Bonnen altered his party’s near-term agenda in service of the GOP’s long-term political project: Power. Will it work?
Weeks before the 2019 legislative session even began, Jeff Leach foreshadowed the shifting political winds that would ultimately animate lawmakers. In early December, the tea-party conservative publicly resigned from the insurgent Texas House Freedom Caucus. Leach declared himself politically born again, saying that he would “recommit myself entirely to the House Republican Caucus.”
That was a month after the state representative from Plano was very nearly ousted in the midterm election by his Democratic opponent, who came within 2 percentage points of knocking Leach from his once-comfortable suburban perch. That was a roughly 15-point swing from his 2016 election. With Democrats rapidly encroaching on their suburban strongholds, embattled Republicans like Leach believed the path to political salvation was through moderation. Call it his come-to-Bonnen moment.
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen entered his first term in power at the Texas GOP’s most vulnerable point in a decade. A dozen House Republicans were wiped out by 2018’s Democratic suburban shockwave that put the opposition party within nine seats of controlling the House.
Once an impenetrable electoral firewall, suburban Texas — home to blue-ribbon school districts, booming housing markets and increasingly diverse populations — made clear in the midterm that it would no longer tolerate Republicans’ gluttonous appetite for social warfare and fiscal brutalism, nor the resulting underfunded schools and high property taxes.
Voters were watching this session and that wasn’t lost on Bonnen. One of his goals for the session was to inoculate his party from further losses. A robust meat (still red, just not raw) and potatoes session focused on public schools and property taxes could serve as a political tourniquet, a way to stop the bleeding in the burbs and fortify the GOP’s hold on power in 2020 and beyond. And the stakes were high: If Republicans can hold on to the House in 2020, they’ll maintain unilateral control of the 2021 redistricting process and maximize their power for another decade.
Leach and a legion of diehard conservative politicians fell in line. They ditched their deep-pocketed right-wing benefactors and hopped on the public-schools bandwagon.
The House proceeded to lead the way on a massive school-finance reform package, while leadership put the most hardline bills on abortion, guns, labor and so-called religious protection on the backburner. Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan was relegated to the corner, desperately trying to get his once-loyal legislators to care about the group’s Fiscal Responsibility Index™.
Fast forward five months to the session’s final days. Bonnen, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced that a bipartisan coalition had reached a $11.6 billion deal to increase state education funding, enhance teacher pay and provide property tax relief. The Legislature, they bragged, had achieved historic success. Republicans and Democrats alike came together to nearly unanimously approve the package. Kumbaya indeed!
Now, all eyes now turn to the 2020 landscape. The Republican rank-and-file are eager to go home and begin selling their alleged successes to voters. More money for schools. More relief for property taxes. More pay for teachers. What’s not to like?
“It’s called the incumbent protection plan,” Republican Representative Giovanni Capriglione told the Austin American-Statesman. “At the end of the day, tax cuts, more money for schools, nothing big blew up.”
Meanwhile, Democrats plan to target more than 15 Republican-held House seats in an effort to wrest control of the lower chamber for the first time in nearly 20 years. But it will be much more difficult for Democrats to effectively cast vulnerable Republicans as incompetent reactionaries after they just got done working hand-in-hand for six months.
Still, there is one clear political argument that Democrats can make: Republicans have dominated the state for two decades, during which time they’ve repeatedly cut funding for public education and other essential services and blown a giant hole in the state budget. Only when Democrats made substantial gains in the Legislature did Republicans decide to try to fix the problem. And even then, they did a half-baked job.
The school finance package is estimated to cost $13.6 billion in the next biennium and currently has no source of permanent revenue. Republicans’ only idea was a regressive scheme to use a sales tax hike to pay for property tax relief. But that quickly crashed and burned when it became clear that only the wealthiest homeowners would benefit while the vast majority of Texans would have paid more. With a glaring budget gap on the horizon, legislators next session may be forced to raise taxes, roll back their new education funding or make cuts elsewhere.
This has happened before. In 2006, lawmakers spent $14 billion on property tax cuts, which were quickly wiped out by rapid growth in property values. Republicans financed the cuts with a highly flawed franchise tax that never raised anywhere near as much money as projected. By 2011, GOP lawmakers cut $5.4 billion in school funding to cover the shortfall.
“To combat legislative amnesia, I am compelled to state for the record that we have seen this before and we are making the same mistake again,” Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who served in the 2011 session, said in a statement after the final deal was passed. “We are again making property tax cut promises without the financial means to pay for them. If history is any guide, our public schools will end up paying the price.”
Bonnen purposefully worked to appease Democrats — including Martinez Fischer — during the session by giving them a seat at the table and doling out committee chairmanships and legislative chits.
The notoriously prickly speaker employed more honey than vinegar during the session, playing up the level of cooperation and camaraderie that cut across the aisle. Now, in an apparent effort to preserve the collegiality of the people’s chamber, Bonnen is threatening political vinegar.
While Republicans will use the school finance and property tax overhauls as political safety blankets, Democrats are surely eager to go after them for how they wanted to pay for it: a sales tax swap that would have made diapers more expensive in order to give property tax cuts to wealthy McMansion owners — the same ones who will also get a tidy sales tax break on their next yacht purchase.
But soon after the session adjourned, Bonnen issued a thinly veiled warning to Democrats. In an interview with Texas’ major newspapers, Bonnen said that he expects all House members to refrain from campaigning against any of their colleagues — Republican or Democrat. “If you campaign against another one of your colleagues, two things will happen to you,” Bonnen said. “I will weigh in against you, and if I’m fortunate enough to continue as speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”
Democrats’ 2018 gains forced Republicans to finally address the rotten fruits of their decade-plus of legislative labor. Now, the speaker is demanding that the ascendant minority party disarm itself and maintain the status quo. According to the Dallas Morning News, when asked how a Democratic member charged with orchestrating a House takeover strategy in 2020 should proceed, Bonnen replied: “Move cautiously.”