The day before embattled Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced his decision declining to seek re-election as a House member last week, Republican state Rep. Kyle Kacal, 49, a College Station Republican and Brazos County rancher, sat down with the Trib editorial board to discuss his unwitting involvement in the scandal that sank Bonnen’s 22-year political career after one term as speaker. Bonnen and then-GOP caucus leader Dustin Burrows covertly sought to enlist right-wing Republican activist and lobbyist Michael Quinn Sullivan’s support in targeting Kacal and nine other House Republicans in the 2020 primary election. Their crime: Not supporting a bill banning taxpayer-funded lobbying by cities and counties. Unbeknownst to Bonnen and Burrows, Sullivan, a longtime Bonnen adversary, recorded the June 12 conversation and exposed the political quid pro quo skullduggery on Oct. 15.
The 64-minute recording reveals Bonnen — weeks after urging House members, Democrat and Republican, to refrain from working to defeat fellow House colleagues — using vulgarities to malign Democratic House members. And at one point, clearly trying to curry favor with Sullivan over the issue of local autonomy versus state power, Bonnen adds: “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 then adds: “I hope the next session’s even worse.”
After the recording emerged, Kacal joined other legislators in pressing for leadership change in the House, even as he stressed his commitment to “keeping conservative leadership in Texas and continuing to represent and serve House District 12.” In this Q&A Kacal discusses motives behind the war some Republican leadership wages against elected officials of the cities and counties across Texas; what issues he sees as important for the many rural constituents in his Central Texas district (which includes a third of McLennan County and part of Waco); and the complicated, often misunderstood struggle to secure enough funding for a growing state where financing public education is but one steep challenge.
Q Given that you were one of 10 Republican state representatives targeted by Speaker Bonnen and GOP caucus leader Dustin Burrows during their meeting with Empower Texans CEO and Republican activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, do you expect any challenge to your re-election as state representative of House District 12?
A I don’t simply because I feel like we’ve had a good [legislative] session, we’ve had a good four terms in the Texas House. When you represent rural Texas and you’re a rural member — well, this time of year are municipal elections and I enjoy seeing my city councils and mayors who are running. You know, I’ve never voted in a municipal election since turning 18 because I’ve always lived in the country. But the relationship I’ve developed with Limestone, Robertson and Falls County, including the rural parts of McLennan and Brazos counties, we all identify with one another. I got their back. We have the opportunity to visit and I try to miss as few events as I can, just given my ability to get through the district, starting at the southernmost part of Brazos County and driving all the way to West. It’s something I enjoy.
Q So what are you doing for your rural constituents?
A Let’s start with the Damon Allen Act involving bail reform, which arises from Trooper Damon Allen’s being murdered on the side of the road on I-45. [The 41-year-old DPS trooper was shot and killed Thanksgiving 2017 during a traffic stop near Fairfield; the suspect was out of jail on a $15,500 bond on charges he eluded police and assaulted a Smith County deputy. He also had a previous conviction for assaulting a police officer.] Damon’s family is from Limestone County, so we’re working on that. We’ve got a road named in his honor as well [a stretch of U.S. Highway 84 through Limestone County]. Regarding schools, House Bill 3 [an $11.6 billion school finance measure including $6.5 billion in new public education spending, plus $5.1 billion to lower property-tax bills] is one of my proudest votes. Over four sessions, I’ve been most focused on public education. I’ve got 32 independent school districts and I’ll argue today as I have always that educating those kids is the most important responsibility of the Legislature, providing the best education we can for those kids. If we educate them and give them the skill sets, they’ll be successful. For my schools, as a whole, HB 3 has been good. I know some bigger schools in the Metroplex and Houston haven’t figured all the numbers yet, and there are growing pains, but for our schools and our teachers and our retired teachers, it was a good deal.
Q I know the state’s agreeing to fund more and there’s talk of lowering school property taxes, but on the balance it’s been a good thing?
A Yes. Of course, everybody wants to talk about property taxes. If the state doesn’t fund its fair share [of public education], we’ve got to make it up somewhere. That’s meant putting it on [the property owners instead] and it’s been tough the last few years. The bad news is we’ve got to come up with all that money the next session, too. The most important part of getting re-elected is to continue this push to ensure the state takes care of their part of public education.
Q So where’s this money going to come from?
Does the answer have anything to do with sales taxes?
A I think so. As a Republican-led body, we stay away from the words “taxes” and “fees” or anything similar. But at a certain point when the population’s inching closer and closer to 30 million, 30 million people need to work together to provide this — and the one thing we all do is shop.
Q So do you think the sales tax is going to go up?
A It’s going to be one of the debates that we have.
Q Where do you fall on this? Would you be open to that?
A Absolutely. I mean, we’ve got to find the money. We owe it to the state of Texas to fund the best public education we can.
Q We have a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot now to basically seal off forever a personal income tax in Texas. Do you favor that in the context of our discussion about viable options to much-hated property taxes?
A Yes. I think we need to vote on it. It’s one of the things that makes the Texas economy work, not having an income tax. But to your point and to follow your logic, we do have to find ways to fill that void. We’ve got to fill the pot in general revenue.
Q But if we take property taxes off the table [as some legislators propose for school operations], or at least seal them where they’re at, and the need for public financing of education continues to rise, especially with a thousand or so people moving to Texas every day, that means if we’re not going to do a personal income tax and we’re not going to entertain any kind of property-tax re-evaluation, sales taxes are all that’s left.
A We’re just starting to have that debate. Oil and gas [and the state revenue from it] is going to fluctuate. The property tax can’t be sealed. It’s always going to be a part that we’re going to have to adjust and work with. I wish we could tell people we’re going to seal it, but they know as well as you and I do that it’s going to fluctuate with appraisals. Yet we’re still the greatest place to live, both in the country and Waco and Bryan/College Station, both fast-growing. Look at the opportunities. You’ve got [Waco sitting on] Interstate 35 with our friends Chip and Joanna [Gaines and their tourist mecca, Magnolia Market at the Silos] as well as Texas A&M in the middle of Bryan/College Station. Take the BRIC [Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative] and our medical research. You have two cool schools [Baylor University and Texas A&M] that have great alumni — and these people are moving back.
Q Do you consider rural Texas within the so-called Texas Triangle to be different from rural Texas out west, where populations are dwindling?
A Absolutely. We’re going to have the benefit of people with better infrastructure. Professionals will live in the country and commute. I think at one point in time we’ll probably have some of the best doctors living inside that triangle in rural Texas commuting to the hospitals in Waco. Think of the specialists who might pick a town — say, Calvert — and buy property there.
Q Waco needs a landfill. It was not politically possible to put one in city limits in Waco apparently, so they’ve looked out into the county. Are you on board fighting the city on this or do you see yourself having another role as the city pursues a landfill near the rural community of Axtell?
A I wouldn’t say ‘fighting,’ but my job is to advocate for my district and my rural communities and smaller communities need my help. I’m fortunate in that I have served on the Environmental Regulation Committee for three or four sessions. Having that relationship with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the process, I’m happy to stand with Axtell and Limestone County and it sneaks into Hill County. We want to make sure we do what’s right. We were glad to call for the TCEQ hearing at Axtell High School. I think some good conversations and good points were made and that the process will work.
Q Do you think there are grounds for a contested case hearing?
A I do.
Q What grounds would those be? Runoff?
A I think it’s going to be on the hydrology regarding groundwater, runoff, all of the above.
Q Do you not think Waco is capable of building a landfill that doesn’t have runoff or leach into groundwater?
A Absolutely, I think they’re capable. I’m just saying that particular piece of real estate may not be the best.
Q It’s on fairly high ground, it’s not in a valley. What is the problem with that particular site?
A What is it, like three different creeks converging there? We just need to go through the process and we’re in the middle of it.
Q It appears we’re now witnessing a power struggle between cities and counties across Texas and Republican state leadership.
A I ran on local control. I think I’ve been consistent since Day One. I’ve worked with my mayors, county judges, commissioners. It’s a partnership. They see everybody in that part of the district. Folks there know who they voted for for commissioner, city council, mayor. They made that vote based on their judgment as a friend and a neighbor. My job’s not to come in there and tell people in, say, Waco that, “You voted wrong!” My job’s to help Kyle [Deaver, Waco mayor] and Scott [Felton, McLennan County judge] and Commissioner Ben Perry — whoever it might be — accomplish those goals that the people they represent are telling them [to pursue]. We [state legislators] are at a different level. Never have I ever viewed us as a dictator, that the [direction in government] needs to be from the top down.
Q Where did all this get started? One principle of the Republican Party in the days of our fathers was local control. What caused this change to where local control is condemned in favor of the almighty state government? I don’t understand.
A I don’t either. I’m sitting in the middle of it and that’s not one of the things that I’m there to do.
Q I’ve listened to Texas House floor debate on issues involving state power and local autonomy, including friction last May between Republican Rep. Trent Ashby and Republican Rep. Kyle Biedermann. Their views of local control are starkly different. And the governor of Texas is quite obviously anti-local in sentiment, at least in this newspaper’s opinion.
A A lot of this is directed at Houston, Texas, in Harris County.
A Some lawmakers who represent that area think they’re too heavy-handed [in Houston], that they don’t know what they’re doing, that there’s too heavy a tax burden on those folks.
Q Texas Municipal League deputy executive director Shanna Igo, in addressing the Waco City Council in November 2018, said a lot of this ultimately focuses on Democratic strongholds in the city halls and county courthouses in larger cities and that it gets down to pure political partisanship.
A My feeling is if you put a Democrat or a Republican as a mid-city mayor, they’re going to do what’s right for their city. They’ve got responsibilities and obligations to these people.
Q So all this is about Harris County?
A No, I’m just saying that’s where I think the philosophical mindset has changed from the Republican leadership side.
Q Yet the city of Lubbock has through its mayor made clear to Rep. Dustin Burrows that his own anti-local sentiments expressed in Mr. Sullivan’s recording is unacceptable. And they’re out in desolate West Texas, nowhere near Harris County or liberal metropolises. I’m talking about Dan Pope, mayor of Lubbock, population 250,000. Again, does GOP leadership not know there’s a difference between the fourth largest city in the United States and cities like Waco and Lubbock?
A You would hope. This goes back to 2017 when Bonnen had this property-tax bill. It came down to Rep. Ashby and I in there arguing with him over population [numbers], to cut us out [exempt certain counties from the bill’s provisions on revenue caps]. Of course, I aligned with the Bryan/College Station and Waco population [numbers] because we didn’t want any part of this. I trust my mayors and I trust my county judges.
Q Have you had any conversations with our mayor or county judge since the recording came out?
A Not Kyle, but Scott and I talked about it a little bit. Not in detail. I want to make sure I’m clear. I have not read the entire transcript nor have I listened to the tape, but just that line that cities and counties had a bad session in 2019 and that [Bonnen and Burrows] hope it’s even worse next session: If that didn’t send shockwaves through the state of Texas, I don’t know what will. Again, the voters vote for these locally elected officials. They know them. They have faith and trust in them. Our job is to help them. They’re the ones that the people elected locally.
Q Does all this furor have to do with planks in the Republican Party of Texas platform?
A To a certain extent. I made the comment the other day in Bryan that I’m more concerned about Texas, not the Republican Party. More importantly, we have such low voter turnout. This is all a part of politics that people don’t like. This is why they disengage. The most detrimental thing, this is going to keep good people from running. I mean, we’ve got an open seat right now in Congressional District 17 and there’s not a plethora of people, good people, stepping out there to run.
Q Right. We’ve got two Republicans running and one is having to move into our district from the big city of Dallas — and he’s swept up in the Trump/Ukraine quid pro quo scandal.
A I thought one of the highest honors is to represent this country, to be a congressman — and, yes, I thought about it. But then you also look at the six or seven Republican congressmen retiring [from Texas]. How many of my [Statehouse] colleagues have stepped up to run for those seats? None.
Q What was the revelation or key takeaway from the Republican caucus meeting immediately after the Sullivan recording was released? I understand the meeting lasted four hours.
A We’re in a stalemate. We did not take action. A letter condemning [the speaker] is not action. So now we have a hobbled Republican majority that is at a stalemate. This decision [regarding the House leadership] can only be and only should be made by the man at the top of the controversy. He has to decide whether to fight and continue to put the Republican Party in jeopardy or he needs to walk away. But that’s his decision and his family’s decision.
Q After hearing this audio recording, yet remembering the speaker’s public declaration about bipartisanship a few weeks before the recording was made, how is one to ever trust this guy again?
A You’re not. And you can see by the list — I think there’s now north of 20 Republican House members who have come out and do not condone the actions or the words on the tape and have asked for new leadership or asked for a resignation.
Q How much of this boils down to the continuing furor over property taxes? When I was listening to fierce House debate about the taxpayer-funded lobbying bill, which is what helped land you and the other nine Republican lawmakers on the speaker’s hit list, it seemed to boil down to taxes. I mean, the governor, speaker and lieutenant governor had a big press conference as the session wrapped to say they’ve solved the problem. That’s nonsense.
A Goes back to House Bill 3 that got us property-tax relief, instant relief. Senate Bill 2 [providing for caps on revenue generated from property taxes for cities and counties to slow the growth of property-tax bills] was tied to HB 3. That was the deal. We could not get HB 3 unless we voted for SB 2. I don’t think SB 2 is going to do anything.
Q Well, I think it’ll retard property-tax growth.
A It’ll retard it, but it’s going to put us in a bigger bind.
Q If you were going to talk to your colleagues, what would you say we need to do next on property-tax relief? We have this constitutional amendment that will make it more difficult to consider income taxes. Only problem is, I’ve listened to discussions the past two legislative sessions among conservatives about getting rid of school property taxes and personal income taxes might be a solution.
A People keep pointing to the appraisal districts. We’re focused on all of this going into the next session. We’ve opened up a can of worms and have to find a solution. The property tax is the way we fund our schools. And everybody’s scared to death that if you change [from property taxes], we’re going to come up short [in overall revenue] and then have a bigger problem. I love the step-back, conservative look at it all, but we’ve ultimately got to find more money, more revenue, to come [from] this incredible economic engine we call Texas. We’ve got to make sure the money is there for public education going forward. To me, that’s monumental. It’s instrumental we have that for these kids and the long-term success of this state. And, yes, regarding the constitutional amendment on income taxes, I think you’re reading the tea leaves correctly. That’s going to pass overwhelmingly by 70% or better.
Q So again, what would you suggest we do?
A You really need to argue for your property taxes to be fair and the appraisals to be fair — that’s a continual battle we have — but come in as we do every year knowing we’re going to pay property taxes. We just cannot abuse that ability. And we’ve got to soften the burden [on property owners] with the state covering a [greater] portion of public education costs. And we need to evaluate the sales tax because, to your point, we’re about to take the income tax off the table for a long, long time.
Q You were put on a list of lawmakers by Speaker Bonnen and caucus leader Burrows to “primary,” to leave vulnerable to attack from candidates to your extreme right. Yet your own speculation and ours suggest that you are not likely to be beaten in any conventional primary format. Why then were you even put on this list?
A It goes back to the time I’ve served, back to 2017 when Rep. Ashby and I argued with Bonnen about those property taxes. I’m going to stand up for my constituents. I’m going to represent my district. I put my name out there and I go to work every day as a state representative to represent this district. And it’s a unique one. It’s one I have always enjoyed. I have lived in it for — oh, I think we’ve been there almost 30 years now. These people have become friends and family. I’ve got a responsibility to fight for them. When I go to Groesbeck, I go by Mayor Ray O’Docharty’s house. That’s two hours I’m going to spend with he and his bride, and it’s well worth it. When I go to Mexia, same difference. When I go to Bremond, I talk with Mayor Rick Swick. I think of Mayor Jarrod Eno when I think of Kosse. We’re friends. I’ve gone through three mayors in Marlin now, from Elizabeth Nelson to a young guy that moved in to Carolyn Lofton, the town’s first female African-American mayor and one who has lived there her whole life. There’s no difference. All three of those individuals love Marlin and want it to be the best, and I’ve got to learn to develop a relationship with them and understand their wants, needs and goals.
Q The speaker contacted a number of legislators before he learned Michael Quinn Sullivan recorded their meeting. The speaker supposedly said, “Don’t believe Sullivan.” Were you one of those contacted?
A Absolutely. I spent 30 minutes on the phone with him. He was in the airport with his wife and two boys and he told me, “Hang tight, it’s not true. We’re going to get through this!”
Q You’re kidding.
A No sir.
Q Has he, have you, talked since?
A No sir.
Q Did you see him at the subsequent GOP House caucus meeting?
A We did lay eyes on one another.
Q I know Dustin Burrows is no longer caucus leader, but did you speak with him during all this?
A He actually came to the ranch and we took a 30- to 40-minute visit.
Q What in the world could he possibly talk about, given what he said in the recording and his targeting of you? Did he reassure you?
A He did not. We didn’t go there. He was very apologetic. He was actually very emotional and I was concerned. I was concerned for him and his family. I realized they were going through a lot right now, but then they’ve put this burden on themselves. And yet they want to be bailed out by us. This is an internal issue that Dustin and Dennis have to deal with and they’re the only ones that can make it stop and make it go away. I’ve accepted their apologies. I don’t condone their actions and I don’t have to listen to the tape. I know it’s bad, but I’ve got more important things to do in House District 12.
Q You mentioned that at the GOP caucus, it was like, “Everybody get in line and get in lockstep, we’re going to move past this.” What was your reaction to that?
A I’m amazed men and women today cannot stand up for what’s right and do what’s right.
Q What are you referring to?
A I have obligations to my constituents. I have an even bigger obligation to my children.