For decades to come, political analysts, scholars and journalists will scrutinize the audio recording that right-wing activist and lobbyist Michael Quinn Sullivan clandestinely made of his closed-door meeting with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and GOP caucus leader Dustin Burrows. They will marvel at the colossal deceit of Bonnen who publicly warned his House flock against campaigning against any incumbents within their ranks — and yet in this subsequent meeting doggedly conspires to convince Sullivan to fund right-wing challengers to unseat “10 moderate Republicans who don’t want to help on anything.”
Not only is Sullivan’s recording Exhibit A in everything wrong with politics today, it goes a long way toward further confirming suspicions everyday Texans have about politics and politicians. It’s the smoked-filled room without the smoke but plenty of the stink. It’s quid pro quo wheeling and dealing so alarmingly obvious — “let me tell you what I’ll do for you” — that no self-respecting apologist will dare rationalize this away. And if House Republicans and Democrats tolerate this skullduggery and backstabbing, they’ll signal to repulsed voters that such Machiavellian modus operandi is oh-so-acceptable, God and patriotism aside, ahem.
Another disturbing message emerges loud and clear in Sullivan’s bracing audio recording: Texas Republican leadership has declared all-out war on cities and counties all across Texas. They are the enemy, neatly succeeding the Obama administration. In his remarks to Sullivan, Bonnen makes clear not only such a war rages to the death but what he thinks of elected officials at the grassroots level: “In this office and in the conference room on that end, any mayor, county judge that was 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.”
To which Burrows adds, in sidekick fashion: “I hope the next session’s even worse.”
To which Bonnen adds: “And I’m all for that.”
Burrows, who hails from Lubbock, later adds for emphasis that “we hate cities and counties.”
To which McLennan County Judge and conservative Republican Scott Felton, when contacted by Trib staff writer Brooke Crum about release of this June 12 audio recording this week, remarked: “I’m going to keep my dumbass working for the taxpayers of McLennan County. We’ve got the ability to do as well in any county, even though we’re a bunch of dumbasses.” The Texas Municipal League, which lobbies to preserve the autonomy of cities, was scathing in its response: “All Texans, especially the mayors and county judges who Dennis Bonnen referred to as ‘dumbass enough to meet’ with him, now know what we are dealing with.”
One point of fierce contention between locally elected officials and state leadership involves property taxes, which Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Bonnen now claim to have limited through a constricting 3.5% property-tax revenue cap placed on cities, counties and other taxing entities. (The newly approved cap goes into effect next year.) City of Waco officials have warned this could complicate everything from an aggressive program to fix crumbling infrastructure, including streets (long demanded by Waco taxpayers), to broadening law enforcement and fire protection in our fast-growing city.
But the real motive behind Bonnen and Burrows’ quest to throw fellow Republicans under the bus involves taxpayer-funded lobbying, which some cities and counties fund to press issues of relevance to local governance and, yes, local constituency in the Texas Legislature. Despite Bonnen’s claim that the 10 Republicans cited — including Kyle Kacal, a College Station Republican who represents part of Waco and a third of McLennan County — “don’t want to help on anything,” the ire driving Bonnen and Burrows is the fact the GOP 10 resisted efforts to strip cities and counties of their lobbying entities.
Yet this taxpayer-funded lobbying furor is rooted in property-tax uproar sparked by tea-party Republicans holding enormous sway over GOP leadership. During Senate testimony in March, Seguin tea-party Republican Terry Harper sounded the familiar revolutionary-era war cry, conjuring up a Texas largely bereft of roads, zoning, traffic ordinances and neighborhood school systems: “I feel confident that those fighting for Texas independence never considered the notion that they would be taxed to pay for the very things they were resisting.” Another anti-lobbying resident testifying, Michael Openshaw of Plano, wearing a shirt reading, “Not a damn lobbyist,” advocated by example for citizens volunteering as lobbyists (complete with all the legal, technical and constitutional expertise this proposition presumably would bring to any debate) or on-staff city and county bureaucrats charged with lobbying state officials (notwithstanding the obvious fact these not only would be funded by taxpayers but would grow the size of local government, a concept supposedly abhorrent to tea party faithful).
Locally elected officials meanwhile protest that certain lobbying entities analyze and track complicated legislation and fight daily for local autonomy on issues ranging from preservation of heritage trees to regulation of building materials to ordinances regarding increasingly controversial short-term rentals (controversial, that is, in neighborhoods resisting them) to annexation policies to, finally, property-tax revenue caps such as those signed into law by Gov. Abbott this year. Further complicating the effort by the far right to snuff out taxpayer-funded lobbying: certain inconvenient aspects about First Amendment free-speech rights.
Inside Senate Bill 29
Like most issues and legislation, Senate Bill 29 was far more complicated than one might guess. The legislation as considered near session’s end in the House proposed to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying by cities and counties in four key areas — taxation, bonds, tax-supported debt and ethics — though an exception for cities and counties funding chambers of commerce, even if they lobby lawmakers, introduced a strange element of ideological inconsistency. Plus, by amendment, elected leaders and county and city employees would still be allowed to lobby personally on the taxpayer’s dime, assuming they motored or flew into Austin themselves. These inconsistencies cleared the way for more inconsistencies and, thus, the bill’s demise under their weight.
Rep. Trent Ashby, another Republican who made the Bonnen-Burrows hit list, proposed an amendment exempting from SB 29 provisions any counties under 250,000 in population as well as the cities within them, all in the name of bolstering struggling rural communities — a popular cause among Republicans. Ashby said it would be easier for rural counties and communities to tap statewide lobbying organizations such as the Texas Association of Counties or Texas Municipal League rather than employing city or county staff to specifically track the confounding multitude of state bills in play each legislative session.
“A lot of the counties that I represent, they’re struggling with hiring an additional deputy sheriff to help with litter abatement, traffic patrol, whatever the case may be, drug enforcement,” the Lufkin Republican told fellow House members. “And now what we’re basically saying is, ‘We know you can’t hire an additional deputy sheriff that everybody wants back home, but now what we [legislators] are telling you is that you’re going to have to hire a fulltime employee to keep up with what’s going on here at the Texas Legislature.’ I just think that’s patently unfair.”
Irony: With successful adoption of this amendment by a 90-54 vote, the number of counties (and cities within them) impacted by the overall bill shrank from 254 counties to 21. McLennan County would still have fallen under the bill’s provisions.
Other lawmakers in the “people’s house” then piled on. Democratic Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston noted how the foremost subject in the House County Affairs Committee hearings he chairs is unfunded mandates by the Legislature, which must be funded by local taxpayers. Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, chair of the House International Relations and Economic Development Committee, charged that taxation is way too broad a category to place off-limits to taxpayer-funded lobbying on behalf of cities and counties. Should lobbyists for cities and counties, for instance, be excluded from debates on the wisdom of tax breaks for wind farms? Tax rebates in general? Occupancy taxes?
Finally, Republican Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches pressed a most relevant point in a state the size of Texas: If cities and counties are prohibited from using taxpayer-funded lobbyists to speak on their behalf in Austin on key issues at least occasionally bubbling up from constituents in those cities and counties, won’t this leave the political field unlevel in terms of rural vs. urban dynamics? Austin leaders and employees would be a “hop, skip and a jump from coming to this building and lobbying,” he said, but city and county leaders and employees in far-off stretches “can’t just get here in 15 minutes or five minutes.
“It seems to me your bill is going to have the unintended consequence of making it harder and harder for folks who live in remote areas of Texas to be here because they can’t simply hire someone,” Clardy told bill sponsor Rep. Mayes Middleton — apparently with just enough down-home logic to earn Clardy a spot on the Bonnen-Burrows hate list, even though Clardy might well have been speaking for Burrows’ own constituents back in dusty, remote West Texas. To quote Burrows a few weeks later in his meeting with Sullivan, a staunch opponent of taxpayer-funded lobbying: “Clardy’s the ringleader of all opposition. We’d be thrilled to see Clardy, somebody else come back from that district (after the 2020 election).”
Nor did the bill’s champions go down without a fight during the floor debate. At one point, Republican Rep. Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg faced off angrily against Ashby: “I can tell you do a lot of representing of your cities and counties. I represent my taxpayers, so your amendment [to exempt counties with populations under 250,000] will take away every bit of protection for every single taxpayer in my district because you want to protect the cities and counties in your area and not your taxpayers. I just hope everyone would listen and be voting against this amendment. This is for taxpayer protection, not protection of our cities and counties.”
Amidst dueling amendments and increasingly pointed debate over whether cities or state legislators better represent taxpayers, Democratic Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos of Dallas underlined a reality increasingly impacting public policy: “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of money that is influencing legislation and it’s coming from our corporations — and it’s directly affecting our taxpayers.”
Party, not people
Senate Bill 29’s death on May 20 by a decisive 58-85 vote left Republican leaders red-faced, given an insistent GOP state platform demanding the banning of taxpayer-funded lobbying. Clearly, Bonnen and Burrows are more devoted to party planks (and party hacks) than lawmakers looking out for cities and communities increasingly isolated by a hostile state government. Kacal, a rancher and otherwise loyal Republican, became a Bonnen-Burrows target for daring to defer to locally elected leaders in his district. Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, a veterinarian who represents the rest of Waco and McLennan County, arguably saved his skin in Burrows’ eyes, possibly because Anderson notified the House reporter that he meant to support SB 29 even though he initially registered opposition to it. (Official record: “When Record No. 1519 was taken, I was shown voting no. I intended to vote yes.”)
“Doc Anderson voted against it, but Doc will come around,” Burrows told Sullivan. “Doc’s one of us.”
In a statement, Kacal lamented the duplicity of the House speaker: “I am truly disheartened by the recorded meeting between Speaker Bonnen, Chairman Burrows and Michael Quinn Sullivan that was released earlier this week. Speaker Bonnen previously called for unity in the Texas House and had promised retribution for members who actively worked against their colleagues in 2020. Unfortunately, the speaker then proceeded to work against several incumbents, predominantly Republicans, behind closed doors.”
Kacal’s reasoning for opposing SB 29 was clear after the 2018 midterms that highlighted ideological fault lines in any sustained attack on locally elected leaders closest to the voters by virtue of living and working among them: “Those county judges, those county commissioners, those mayors, those city councils are elected. They see those numbers every day, they see those people every day. I don’t see my job as a state legislator as hobbling them or impeding them in doing a job they see every day. I’m there to help, not hurt.”
In remarks to the Waco City Council last November, Texas Municipal League deputy executive director Shanna Igo said pure partisan politics may well be aggravating growing tensions between cities and counties and the state leaders actively targeting them: “Last session , the governor called in a group of five mayors that were all Republican-leaning who had helped him in his campaign, like Frisco, Sugar Land, McKinney. And when they got out of the meeting, they were furious. I asked them what was wrong. They said the governor said as long as we have Democrats in some of the major cities, he’s going to continue to slap cities around. And they said, ‘But you’re hurting us, you’re hurting the mid-sized cities that are mostly Republican.’ And he said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re collateral damage.’”
In one respect, the sordidness and double-dealing exposed in the Sullivan recording not only underline the Grand Old Party’s abandoning of once-cherished principles championing local control but highlight the cunning, scheming and unscrupulousness that Abbott, Bonnen and other Republicans are willing to employ to suppress and humiliate local governance in Texas. Between arguing whether Sullivan called Burrows a moron or not, Burrows reveals during their meeting that crushing taxpayer-funded lobbying will be “the benchmark for next session.” He also makes clear the party leadership’s intent on removing any shackles on gun possession in Texas, seemingly reassuring the deep-pocketed gun lobby. And, of course, all this is couched by Burrows and Bonnen to reassure Sullivan’s own lobbying priorities, much of it funded by a wealthy West Texas oilman.
Where do matters go from here and the almost certain fall of Dennis Bonnen as speaker and the deserved shunning of Dustin Burrows? If Texans in 2021 see state leaders aggressively tackling such festering problems for mayors, county judges and taxpayers as unfunded state mandates and myopic property-appraisal protocols in sore need of reform, it may prove encouraging evidence of a GOP leadership recoiling at its own duplicity (or, at least, exposure of it on a grand scale). It may demonstrate that state leaders are determined to craft real solutions, and invest political capital in those solutions, rather than cater to moth-eaten, knee-jerk, grab-your-musket-and-coonskin-cap tea-party impulses.
The irony in all this furor over Senate Bill 29 and the subsequent targeting of Republicans such as Kacal? There’s nothing wrong with taxpayer-funded lobbying, especially when the high and mighty in business and industry are clearly allowed more access to state leadership through considerable influence and wealth. If local taxpayers don’t like taxpayer-funded lobbying, they can always vote the board/council/court out or level scorching condemnations at local leaders during open commenting at public meetings in ways that don’t necessitate long day trips to Austin. To quote Travis Clardy on the House floor last May: “As you know, I’m a local control guy. I’m an unrepentant, unabashed supporter of local control. You may have heard me say before, ‘He who stands closest to the fire fights it best.’”