The recording of a conversation between two top Republican state lawmakers and a conservative activist released Tuesday exposed legislators’ intentional political targeting of cities and counties — and their plans to make the 2021 legislative session even more painful for local governments.
“Any mayor, county judge that was dumb ass 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,” Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said in the recording.
“I hope the next session is even worse,” Republican state Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock replied.
Bonnen then said he was “all in for that.”
The 64-minute recording was part of a conversation between Bonnen, Burrows and Michael Quinn Sullivan, who is the CEO of the hardline conservative group Empower Texans. Slowly leaked details of the meeting — and accusations that Bonnen offered Sullivan press credentials to his group in exchange for politically targeting sitting House members — have roiled the lower chamber for months.
But shortly after Sullivan released the recording Tuesday, it publicly exposed Bonnen’s apparent animus toward local leaders during his first session as speaker — and Burrows’ plans to take away a major revenue stream local governments use to finance everything from public transit agencies, major sporting venues, corporate relocations and some emergency response services.
The three men discussed failed plans during the 2019 session to forbid local governments from using tax funds to pay for the services of lobbyists who advocate on behalf of cities and counties. The 10 lawmakers Bonnen and Burrows suggested Sullivan’s group could target in next year’s elections voted against a bill that would have prohibited such local expenditures.
Several details in the recording drew almost immediate criticism from local leaders from across the state.
“The people of your community didn’t send you to Austin to ignore their local municipal and county governments,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “In fact the opposite, they expect you to listen.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler also condemned the men's words.
"It is a failure of State leadership for there to be such division between cities and our State,” Adler said in a statement. “Our cities are our State’s incubators of innovation and engines of economic development. Most Texans live in cities. We need each other to be great. Maybe with this daylight, things will change.”
Bonnen and Burrows — as well as the mayors of Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio — could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
About 84% of Texans live in urban areas. But as the state’s cities — and even some suburbs — have become more Democratic, officials within the Republican-controlled state government have often sparred with local leaders on everything from homelessness to immigration and ride-sharing regulation.
“Where do we have all our problems in America?” Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked in a televised interview in 2017. “In our cities — that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city councilmen and women. That's where you see liberal policies. That's where you see high taxes. That's where you see street crime."
During the last session, the Legislature limited how much local governments can collect in property tax revenues without voter approval, banned red-light cameras and eliminated some telecommunications fees paid to local entities. All three of those measures heavily impacted municipal budgets.
Senate Bill 2, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, included a provision that requires local governments to hold an election before raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. An earlier law set the threshold at 8%. Some mayors said Republicans failed to provide a rationale for why the threshold was reduced to 3.5% instead of a more modest reduction.
State Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, said she felt discouraged about what Bonnen and Burrows said in the recording.
“I know how hard Bexar County worked during the session and they did so thinking that they were in an equal field,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to know that the citizens were disregarded and it seems they will be disregarded for next session.”
The Texas Municipal League, an interest group which lobbies on behalf of 1,156 Texas cities, once had a highly collaborative relationship with state lawmakers. But the organization has increasingly collided with GOP lawmakers in recent years. The group opposed more than 150 bills in the Legislature this spring.
“It is shocking to hear a state official express such animosity toward the cities and counties in his own state,” TML Executive Director Bennett Sandlin said in a statement. “It's appalling he fails to recognize that pursuing his personal vendetta will ultimately harm Texans who live in our cities.”
The GOP-backed proposal to ban taxpayer funded lobbying failed in a House vote after several Republicans opposed the measure. In the recording, Burrows told Sullivan that banning taxpayer-funded lobbying will be a “benchmark” for the 2021 session.
Plans for sales tax revenues
At one point in the recording, Burrows also said he had a plan to lower property taxes, which cities, counties and school districts rely on to fund the services they provide. His plan apparently relies on replacing those revenue streams with the portion of sales tax revenues that local governments also use to pay for things like public transit, corporate relocations and emergency services.
Burrows apparently doesn’t mention what local governments should do to fund such services and projects in lieu of those sales tax revenues.
“I’ve pitched this to the governor, I've started pitching this to some of my colleagues,” Burrows said. “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? We don't raise anything, it's already a statewide average, it's economic development dollars, we hate cities and counties.”
Those “two pennies” are used in a wide range of ways, including financing health districts and building the new baseball stadium in Arlington.
“We rely on those two cents,” Sandlin said. “Sales taxes are our second most important source of revenue. To take those would be unconscionable.”
Lawmakers this year suggested raising the sales tax to help pay for public education so school districts could lower property tax rates. The idea gained little traction.
Democratic legislators worry an anti-local government attitude will remain during the next legislative session. Abbott this year sent state troopers to Dallas after that city experience a spike in homicides. And he’s threatening to send Department of Public Safety officers and other state employees to Austin’s streets if city officials don’t reverse a decision to loosen some homelessness ordinances.
“It’s worrisome,” said state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, whom Bonnen said in the recording he doesn’t like. “It’s terrifying when you look at the bigger picture. They know where the demographic trends are going. We must wake up and do something about it.”
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and Texas Municipal League have been financial supporters of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.