Politics & Government

House leaders ‘hate’ Texas’ cities and counties. ‘It’s just infuriating,’ FW mayor says

In a secret recording of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Rep. Dustin Burrows made public Tuesday, the Republican leaders didn’t hold back in their vitriol for Texas’ local governments.

“Let me tell you something,” Bonnen can be heard saying on the 64-minute recording. “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.”

“I hope the next session’s even worse,” said Burrows, who was chairman of the House Republican Caucus at the time.

Comments like those sent a clear message to Tarrant County’s officials — some who had met with Bonnen and Burrows over the course of the session.

“It’s just infuriating when they’re calling you dumbasses behind your back. Texas House can do better than this,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said. “Speaker Bonnen is not the man we need leading the Texas House right now, and I think the fact that he even met with somebody that he knew he couldn’t trust and made comments like that shows the appalling lack of judgment.”

Said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley: “It seems very obvious that there’s absolutely no reason to bother to meet with the speaker and with Burrows, because they’ve obviously made their position very well known as to what they think of cities and counties: they hate us.”

The lawmakers’ disdain for cities and counties was just one revelation in the recording of a wide-ranging June meeting between Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative activist and CEO of the political advocacy group Empower Texans, Bonnen, and Burrows, in which Bonnen appears to offer access in exchange for Empower Texans’ firepower.

Sullivan published the recording of the meeting Tuesday, following numerous calls for its public release after he first raised the allegations of a quid pro quo offer in late July. The recording largely supported Sullivan’s claims that Bonnen suggested he could grant writers from Empower Texans’ news site previously denied House press credentials and urged the group to target 10 Republican incumbents in their re-election bids.

And one of the determining factors for which Republicans to go after: those who voted against a proposal that would have prohibited cities and counties from using public funds to pay for lobbyists that advocate on their behalf.

In statements Tuesday, Bonnen and Burrows stressed moving forward. Neither responded to requests for comment Wednesday in response to local officials’ criticism.

But for mayors on the front lines, the comments were disrespectful and insulting.

“The tape does change things, because it shows an ill-intent of our leaders,” Price said. “It’s a really callous comment, and it also shows he’s got no understanding of local government. These are his constituents too.”

New laws passed this legislative session are expected to slash millions in city revenue, and Fort Worth anticipates at least $10 million will be lost due to laws that ban red light cameras, reduce telecom providers’ fees and impose a revenue cap on property taxes, Price said.

“It’s a major concern for us,” Price said.

And while the city proposed a 3.75-cent reduction in its tax rate as part of the proposed 2020 budget, City Manager David Cooke previously said the cut could have been even greater — by about 1.2 cents — if revenue streams hadn’t been whittled by the legislature.

Bennett Sandlin, the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which represents more than 1,100 cities and heavily opposed the bill to end taxpayer-funded lobbying, said the remarks confirmed the feeling of “behind-the-scenes animosity toward Texas cities” this session.

“It was a bad one in recent memory,” Sandlin said. “It’s OK to think that there’s different ways to govern at the different levels of government, but it’s not OK to have a vendetta against mayors and council members and want to see cities fail for nothing other than political reasons.”

Local officials are looking for state lawmakers and leaders to act as partners to deliver services to constituents, rather than being called names, Sandlin said.

“There is an effort to deprive local governments of their voices at the Texas Capitol. Local officials serve as the most effective and efficient experts for their legislative members on proposed laws impacting the deliverY and costs of local government services,” Kevin Burns, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties Board Chairman and Wise County Commissioner, wrote in a statement Wednesday.

Price said she met with Burrows during the session, and that the comments on the recording leave her feeling a little leery going forward.

“When somebody talks about you off-the-record like that, and they’re saying other things to your face, how can you trust any of them?” Price said. “It gets particularly hard to figure out who there we can really work with and who we can’t.”

Whitley said he met with Bonnen himself early in the legislative session, along with Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Bonnen, “did not express those thoughts or those ideas to me at any point in time during that meeting,” Whitley said. “He said, ‘I want to resolve this issue of revenue caps, and hopefully so that we will never have to address it again.’ And yet, now we read that they’re wanting to make the next session even worse than this last one was.”

Whitley said it shows the disrespect Bonnen holds for elected officials — “even some of his own.”

“It’s pretty disappointing to think that their chief priority is to try to make our lives miserable,” Whitley said. “Instead of looking to how you’re going to destroy counties and cities, maybe they ought to spend a little bit more time on how to reallocate taxes they collect and relieve some of the burden on property taxes.”

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Burrows chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees bills on state taxes and revenue. And in the recording, he laid out a potential plan to lower Texans’ property tax bills.

“I’ve pitched this to the governor, I’ve started pitching this to some of my colleagues. Why don’t we just take the two local pennies that are being used for economic development and put those into driving down property taxes” Burrows says to Sullivan after Bonnen appears to have left the room. “We don’t raise anything. It’s already a statewide average. It’s economic development dollars. We hate cities and counties.”

Price said Burrows’ plan to cut sales taxes would decimate local budgets.

“In Fort Worth, one penny of sales tax is 22% of our general revenue. That one penny’s worth $160 million dollars,” Price said. “I think it’s crazy. Particularly in smaller cities, it would bankrupt them to lose their sales tax. Cities are really economic engines of our state.”

Jimmy Stathatos, the town manager of Flower Mound, said he was shocked that Burrows thought that the “two pennies” levied by local authorities are solely used for economic development. In Fort Worth, portions of that revenue go toward funding Trinity Metro and the city’s Crime Control and Prevention District, which allows for new technology, new vehicles and training for the Fort Worth Police Department.

“He chairs the House committee over taxation, so those comments really stunned me,” Stathatos wrote in an email Wednesday. “I know there’s a learning curve, but the comments were made after the session. That’s a compelling reason why locally elected officials should be in charge of making decisions that affect local residents, as opposed to the state.”

Whitley, who has proposed raising the gas tax as one possibility to ease the burden of property taxes, said Burrows’ comments show he has “no concept” of what the levied 2 cents go toward, noting that only one is used for economic development while the other is for general operating revenues.

“Mr. Burrows needs to spend a little bit of time understanding the statements before he makes them. He might be a little bit wiser and a little bit more careful about what he says,” Whitley said.

But ultimately, Whitley and Price want to see Tarrant County’s own state lawmakers speak up.

“What are they going to do to support the cities and counties, because obviously these two leaders are trying to destroy us,” Whitley said. “Are you willing to push back? Are you willing to go against the Speaker in that regard?”

Tarrant County representatives respond

Democratic Reps. Ramon Romero of Forth Worth and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie issued statements Tuesday expressing they had lost confidence in Bonnen to continue as Speaker.

Romero said Bonnen’s statements on local governments were “absurd.”

“He’s vindictive to mayors, city councilmembers, and county commissioners across Texas for simply representing their constituencies,” Romero said in the statement.

Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, called for Bonnen’s resignation Wednesday, joining a growing group of Republican members who have.

“In order to restore significant trust and confidence in the people’s Legislature, we must move forward with a change in House leadership,” Tinderholt said.

In response to local officials’ calls to action, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said in an email Wednesday night he would continue to work for Northeast Tarrant County residents.

“My constituents want me to keep taxes low and regulations reasonable because those are the pillars of our state’s economic success,” Capriglione wrote. “I will always protect those principles.”

The offices of Reps. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, and Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, declined to comment because both lawmakers serve on the House General Investigating Committee, which requested the Texas Rangers investigate the allegations. The investigation is ongoing.

Geren said Tuesday he had not yet listened to the recording. Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, discussed the recording on Facebook Live Wednesday, but did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Republican Tarrant County area Reps. Craig Goldman, Stephanie Klick, Bill Zedler, and Phil King did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

This story was originally published October 17, 2019 10:51 AM.

Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.
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