Politics & Government

House Republican leaders call on Bonnen to resign; Whitley slams comments on cities

Five top House Republican lawmakers, some who chair powerful committees, expressed late Monday night they could no longer support Dennis Bonnen as House Speaker.

“We believe that without a change in House leadership, the existing damage will continue to metastasize and our efforts will be overshadowed and become increasingly difficult. This issue is larger than any one individual, office, meeting or statement. Speaker Bonnen is our colleague and our friend; but, we believe an expedient, deliberate and well-planned transition is needed for the House and best for Texas,” the statement read.

The joint statement from Republican Reps. Four Price of Amarillo, Dan Huberty of Houston, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Frullo of Lubbock, was first reported by the Texas Tribune.

The withdrawal of their support comes just days after a previously planned House Republican Caucus meeting in which Bonnen’s fate as leader of the Texas House was debated. Calls for his resignation have grown following the release of a recording of a June meeting between conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, Bonnen, and Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was the GOP Caucus leader at the time.

The recording largely appears to support Sullivan’s allegations that Bonnen offered access in exchange for the political advocacy group Empower Texans’ firepower in targeting 10 Republican incumbents in their re-election bids.

While the GOP Caucus collectively issued a statement condemning Bonnen and Burrows following the meeting, it did not call for an immediate resignation. Price, Huberty, Larson, Paddie and Frullo said they felt it was necessary to express their stance despite the previous statement that they “helped draft and fully support.”

“It is clear that trust and confidence in the Speaker has significantly eroded among our membership, and the matter has both damaged the reputation of the House and relationships among individual members,” the joint statement read. “The House Republican Caucus issued an official statement condemning the conduct of Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows that we helped draft and fully support; however, we individually and collectively want to further express our belief that a leadership change is necessary.”

The members’ statement came just shortly after Bonnen doubled down on his criticisms of local government officials while expressing regret for how he shared them in the recording.

Bonnen took to Twitter Monday night to clarify disparaging comments about local officials that were revealed in the audio. In the 64-minute recording, Bonnen could be heard saying: “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.”

On Twitter, Bonnen said he has “great respect and admiration” for city and county officials, and stressed that he’s not against local government, but is “a pro-taxpayer conservative.”

“I’m talking about the large urban cities who think they have the unlimited authority to mandate any progressive policy they want. When they exceed their jurisdiction, the state is obligated to keep them in check,” Bonnen wrote, citing various issues some cities and counties have opposed.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley was quick with an admonishment of his own.

“He’s trying to make excuses for just lying to people,” Whitley said in an interview Monday night. “You elect your local elected officials to provide quality of life services, and you don’t need the state dictating what those services will be. They need to get out of our business.”

Calls for Bonnen to resign have trickled down to local officials, with Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price saying last week that he should step down as Speaker in light of his comments against cities and counties.

“Speaker Bonnen and several of the people down there believe that local control stops in Austin. And I don’t want somebody from Brazoria County or from Lubbock or from anybody at any place else deciding what goes on in this area,” Whitley said Monday, referencing the areas where Bonnen and Burrows represent. “Our voters will elect us. And they’re not stupid when they elect us and geniuses when they elect them.”

In his tweets, Bonnen railed against local officials who he said “refused the chance to be part of the solution” to lower property taxes. This legislative session, lawmakers imposed a 3.5% cap on property tax revenues for cities and counties, while also providing about $5 billion in property tax cuts.

“Texans sent us a clear message — they were sick & tired of skyrocketing prop taxes & demanded solutions. So, we stopped wasting time chasing after those who would never come around & used the time we had to do something about it,” Bonnen wrote. “Any session yielding a $5B prop tax cut & more transparency is a win for taxpayers. Big cities see it as a loss. I regret what I said & how I said it, but that’s what I tried to convey in that 30 sec soundbite of our hr-long conversation.”

Whitley said he met with Bonnen and Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, early in the legislative session to discuss the possibility of raising the sales tax in an effort to lower property taxes. Whitley stressed that the legislature has the means to lower property taxes at a state level, suggesting putting more money toward funding public education or raising the gas tax.

“They are the biggest benefactor of raising property taxes, because it reduces their responsibility for schools,” Whitley said of the legislature, which funds public education through a shared state-local system.

Whitley noted that while Texans do experience high property taxes, overall, Texas is still a relatively low-tax state.

“Now, when it comes to the taxes we collect, yes, property taxes are over 50% of all those taxes,” Whitley said. “But who decides what taxes we can use to provide those services? It’s the state legislature.”

Whitley, who said last week that Bonnen’s comments were “pretty disappointing,” said Monday night that whether he steps down as Speaker is still an issue to be decided among lawmakers themselves. He reiterated his calls for Tarrant County’s state lawmakers to speak out and advocate for local municipalities.

Whitley suggested that Republican lawmakers were hesitant to have Bonnen resign if it means Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, who currently serves as Speaker Pro Tempore — the number two leader in the House — will assume the position of Speaker.

“That’s the reason they won’t force him to resign,” Whitley said. “But that doesn’t mean that our delegation shouldn’t be condemning what he said. And saying that basically, they can’t support someone who feels that way about about local government.”

“Because if they don’t say it,” Whitley said, “obviously they feel the same way.”

Shortly after the five senior House leaders issued their joint statement, more Republican lawmakers joined the call for Bonnen to step down.

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, tweeted his lack of support, and Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, told the Quorum Report, that he strongly encourages Bonnen to resign.

Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, wrote on Twitter, “I wish to also pile on,” and said she plans to submit a letter to Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Republican from Forth Worth and chair of the House GOP Caucus, to call a caucus meeting to vote on the issue.

Sullivan, the conservative activist and CEO of Empower Texans, who first raised the allegations against Bonnen and secretly recorded the June meeting, shared his thoughts on Twitter as the calls for resignation grew Monday night.

“Now been a lot more than five tonight,” Sullivan wrote. “The floodgates are opening as #TxLege #GOP members abandon the toxic Speakership of @RepDennisBonnen.”

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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.