Texas Politics

‘It has been a new day.’ Speaker Bonnen earns praise on both sides after first session

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has no regrets.

Lawmakers wrapped up what some deemed the “Super Bowl” of legislative sessions Monday, passing some of Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Bonnen’s top priorities, including legislation on school finance, property taxes and school safety.

“You’d really have to be digging to find something to be regretful about,” Bonnen said Monday in an interview with reporters.

Monday also marked the close of Bonnen’s first session leading the House — the same chamber where he got his start as a state representative over 20 years ago in 1997. The Republican from Angleton was the youngest member of the Legislature at the time under former House Speaker Pete Laney, who Bonnen said taught him the model of leadership he uses today.

“I learned from Speaker Laney that you let the members drive the agenda,” Bonnen said. “As speaker, you ensure that you create an environment and a leadership style that allows the members to succeed on those big issues. You move the hurdles and the barriers out of their way.”

Some representatives from Tarrant County said they felt Bonnen let them do just that.

“It has been a new day in this building,” Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said of Bonnen’s tenure.

Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said the tone of the 86th legislative session was set on Day One, when Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen held a joint press conference stressing their commitment to working together.

“And then here we are, Day 140, and we’ve accomplished all of those things. It’s not that easy to do,” Goldman said. “It makes for, I think, one of the most historical sessions in Texas history. If you ask any member on that floor, it was his leadership, his guidance that set the tone for this body.”

Bonnen earned respect from both sides of the aisle, in part, by “spreading the wealth,” said Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Forth Worth.

“He involved everyone,” Romero said. “I think overall, he was a very moderate, well-spoken, respectful man of integrity virtually every day of this session. I give him a lot of credit.”

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said Democrats had a productive relationship with Bonnen, who began his speakership in January by pledging to work with all factions in the House. The speaker named Turner as chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, giving the Grand Prairie lawmaker a major role in overseeing North Texas higher education institutions, such as UT Arlington and the University of North Texas.

Turner credited Bonnen for infusing the House with “good constructive, open dialogue throughout the session” and making sure “the House stayed on track.”

While lawmakers said they saw a more respectful working relationship with each other, debates and disagreements still occurred, like a point of order raised by Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, that nearly killed a mental health consortium that was later amended onto a school safety bill.

Finding a way to keep the mental health consortium — a priority of state leaders and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who authored the bill — alive, was a way to ensure that the pledge of treating each other with mutual respect was upheld, Bonnen said.

And part of that propensity for respect stemmed from Bonnen ensuring each member was heard. Members of the Tea Party-aligned Texas Freedom Caucus have said their perspectives are included in discussions under Bonnen.

“When people know that, one, they’re going to be heard,” Bonnen said. “They react far more favorably, because they’re not first fighting to be heard. You remove that element of contention.”

But Bonnen was silent on points of tension with Abbott and Patrick over the course of the session.

“We absolutely had disagreement. I think one time Governor Patrick didn’t like the bacon. Wasn’t crispy enough,” Bonnen joked. “That’s the beauty of it. We’re not discussing what we disagreed on. (It’s) why we are in such a strong position together.”

The three leaders touted legislative agreement on passing some of their biggest priorities: House Bill 3, the school finance bill, House Bill 1, the state’s budget, and Senate Bill 2, a property tax reform package.

Passing the bills is just the start, and Bonnen acknowledged lingering questions remain about how to ensure the legislation is viable for years to come.

“We’re going to have to make tweaks. We’re going to have to fix things that we didn’t intend,” Bonnen said of the school finance plan. “All of us are going to have to work on making sure that we have the revenues to continue to fund what we’ve accomplished.”

While Bonnen’s pleased with the Legislature’s accomplishments this session, he said ultimately, it’s the House members’ opinions that matter most.

“I think every member in this body had an opportunity to pass legislation that was important to them,” Klick said. “That hasn’t always been the case.”

Bonnen said his predecessor, San Antonio Republican and former five-term House Speaker Joe Straus, helped set the stage for a successful session. Straus doesn’t get enough credit for taking controversial issues that could have blown up this session “off the table,” Bonnen said.

This won’t be the last of Bonnen, who said he hopes to return as speaker next session and achieve similar gains. In order to do so, he issued a warning to any lawmakers who attempt to unseat their fellow members in the next election and “politicize the process.”

“If you campaign against another one of your colleagues, two things will happen to you. If there’s the opportunity, I will weigh in against you,” Bonnen said. “And if I am fortunate enough to continue to be speaker, you will find yourself not well-positioned in the next session.”

“ ... This session, we accomplished unprecedented things,” he said. “If members of the Legislature are out campaigning against each other, you then don’t accomplish things like that, because you bring the elections into the legislative process.”

Romero said that when an even representation of Democrats and Republicans make up the House, a less polarizing legislature will emerge.

“We have the responsibility to ensure that more people go out and have their voices heard, from municipal races all the way up to presidential races,” Romero said. “I think that should not be in any way frowned upon.”

While Bonnen hopes Republicans continue to hold the majority in the House, he said that wasn’t what drove him this session.

“We did what we did, because people send us here every two years to do a job,” Bonnen said. “Our job is to solve the biggest problems facing Texas. And I think you saw an extraordinary commitment from Republicans and Democrats working in such a harmonious, respectful way on these big issues. I think what it really does though, is it helps every member of the Texas House get reelected.”

Staff writers Anna Tinsley and David Montgomery contributed to this report.

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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.