House Speaker Dennis Bonnen's first term at the helm of the lower chamber could also be his last, as Democrats and Republicans have called for him to step down in light of comments he made during a June meeting where he offered up press credentials in return for political favors.
The news of Bonnen's remarks broke this week when a recording - made in secret by Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan - was released to the public, detailing discussions of the June meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen (R-Angleton) and Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock).
The recording reveals that Bonnen offered House press credentials to Empower Texans for the upcoming legislative session in return for Sullivan targeting certain Republican House members in the 2020 primary elections. Sullivan first accused Bonnen of making the quid pro quo deal last summer, and Bonnen has denied it ever since. Sullivan is in the midst of a federal court battle with the Texas House over obtaining those same credentials.
"If you need some primaries to buy in, I will leave, and Dustin will tell you some that we would love it if you bought in, not that you need our permission,"
Bonnen told Sullivan during the meeting
But what I would love to be able to do, candidly, is kind of have, I don't want to say agreement but kind of understanding, look: You want to go pop some guys."
Bonnen has denied any criminal wrongdoing in light of the release of the recording, calling the tape "clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing." However, the Public Integrity Unit of the Texas Rangers continues to investigate the matter after
the House General Investigating Committee unanimously called for the inquiry in August.
At one point, Sullivan tells Bonnen that Sullivan "doesn't
need anything." In response, Bonnen stated,
"We can make this work. I'll put your guys on the floor next session."
At another point, Bonnen stepped out of the meeting while Sullivan and Burrows discussed last session's failed effort to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying, a piece of legislation primarily aimed at cities and counties.
"We're going to spend the entire interim trying to expose what those dollars are being used on, try to get public support behind it, and we want to come back and take another pass at taxpayer-funded lobbying."
Burrows also discussed his plans for replacing local property tax dollars with sales tax revenue. "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 said. "We don't raise anything, it's already a statewide average, it's economic development dollars, we hate cities and counties."
In discussing the 2020 elections, Bonnen turned his attention to President Donald Trump.
"I just think we got to get through 2020 and guarantee that we hold this majority, which - all due respect to Trump, who I love by the way - he's killing us in urban, suburban districts," Bonnen said.
"I mean you might not find them to be your favorite, but they're not particularly a problem and even help us out," Bonnen stated. "You kill off one or two or three that are never going to help you. And then let's also turn our guns completely...I can't stand
Ana-Maria Ramos (D-Richardson)
. I mean Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) makes my skin crawl. He's a piece of s---."
Since the release of the recording, a growing group of bipartisan House members have called for Bonnen to step down as speaker, including high-profile Republicans like Reps. John Smithee (R-Amarillo), Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) and Phil King (R-Weatherford). Smithee called Bonnen's actions a "forfeiture of the speaker's right to lead." Others have also called for Burrows to step down.
If Bonnen refuses to step down, he will remain speaker heading into the 2021 session. However, if he resigns, speaker pro tempore Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) would step in as interim speaker. Otherwise, Bonnen also has the power to appoint a new speaker pro tempore at any time. Meanwhile, House Republicans met yesterday as a caucus and continue those meetings today.