In-Depth

Speaker Dennis Bonnen: A First-Term Analysis

Bonnen led the Texas House of Representatives through a productive session, passing school finance reform, property tax relief and flood infrastructure legislation.

Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), the CEO of Heritage Bank in Pearland, was elected speaker of the Texas House on January 8, 2019.

The 86th Texas Legislature has come to a close, and with it ends Dennis Bonnen’s first session as speaker of the House. The Angleton Republican passed school finance reform and Harvey relief, but fell short of a grand bargain on tax reform. News 88.7 decided to take a closer look at how Bonnen performed in his first term.

At his inauguration, Dennis Bonnen struck a practical tone.

“As we all know a Texas legislative session is way too short to get caught up in things that don’t lead to real results,” Bonnen said, as he addressed the House for the first time as its leader. That’s a lesson he had quite a while to learn. By the time Bonnen took up the speaker’s gavel, the 47-year-old had already served more than two decades in the House.

“The fact that he was so overwhelmingly elected as speaker has served him well,” said Sherri Greenberg, a former lawmaker who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “And also the significant amount of experience, the number of years that he’s served in the Texas House of Representatives has served him well.”

Early on, Bonnen held a joint press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. The “Big Three,” Bonnen said, would be working together — a different approach from two years ago, when former Speaker Joe Straus and Patrick were often at loggerheads. Still, that shift masked a key trait Bonnen shared with his predecessor.

“It is important to remember that Dennis Bonnen was one of Joe Straus’s chief lieutenants,” Greenberg said. “And so I do think there were some commonalities there, and that would be really looking to stand up for the members of the House versus the agenda of the Senate.”

Temperamentally, Bonnen has a lot more in common with Straus than, say, with Patrick.

“There’s sort of two types of speakers in Texas history. There’s been the ‘Do as I say’ type, and there’s been the ‘Let the chamber work its will’ type,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “And Bonnen has been much more of the ‘Let the chamber work its will’ type.”

Put another way, Bonnen tries to make sure all his members feel they’ve had a fair hearing. Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University said part of the reason Bonnen does that so effectively is because he’s more conservative than Straus, and the GOP caucus knows it.

“They always thought that Speaker Straus was going to kill many of the most conservative Republican bills in the session, and sometimes he would,” Jillson said.

Which isn’t to say Bonnen didn’t buck his more-conservative members when it served his purpose. “You see that in Bonnen directing some gun issues and some abortion issues to committees that he was relatively sure would bury them, so that they didn’t become a cause celebre on the floor of the House and take up a lot of time that could be better spent on more fundamental issues,” Jillson said. For example, Harvey relief and flood control infrastructure.

But the session wasn’t all triumphs. There was, Brandon Rottinghaus notes, the failed effort to offset property tax relief with a sales tax increase.

“The tax swap issue, I think, was the biggest problem,” Rottinghaus said. “That was a strategic mistake. It wasn’t Bonnen’s mistake, because Bonnen was only a small part of that, but it gets him in the crosshairs of many Republicans who wanted him to go further and make sure that it was put up to a vote.”

Houston-based political analyst Nancy Sims said Bonnen had the tough task of dealing not only with staunch conservatives in his own caucus, but also the House’s largest Democratic contingent in nearly a decade.

“He’s had very good bipartisan support and kept everybody speaking to each other,” Sims said, “which is very hard in the Texas Legislature especially toward the end of a legislative session.”

That ability to strike a balance proved key to his biggest success: getting school finance reform and property tax relief across the finish line before the session’s end.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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