Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who has spent nearly half of his life as a member of the Texas Legislature, was unanimously elected the 75th speaker of the Texas House as the 86th Legislative Session convened on Tuesday. As prescribed by the Texas Constitution, both the Texas House and Senate were gaveled into session at noon on Tuesday with 150 House members and 31 Senate members being sworn into office.
The first order of business for the Texas House was the selection of a speaker, a post that was once considered wide open after the announced retirement of former House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is considered the president of the Senate and is the presiding officer in that chamber. Patrick, however, missed the opening day of the session because he was in Washington, D.C. meeting with President Donald Trump ahead of Trump’s scheduled visit on Thursday to McAllen.
In Bonnen’s first comments to a packed chamber, filled with friends, family, and at least three former House speakers, he acknowledged what many of said about him: that he is a candid, sometimes caustic adversary who has a reputation for speaking his mind. “Those of you who know me well know that I operate with an efficiency and honesty that can leave a mark,” he said. “I am direct and I am a problem solver. These are both traits that I inherited from my father. Right now, Texas has a number of problems to resolve and it’s our duty to produce meaningful solutions for all Texans.”
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While he vowed that the legislative priorities of the House would be those chosen by its members, he did mention a number of public policy problem areas that he called opportunities. “We have an opportunity to tackle our number one priority to fix our state’s broken school finance system and strive to make Texas schools the best in the country,” he said. “That also gives us the opportunity to show teachers and retired teachers from Amarillo to Anahuac that we appreciate their years of service and investment in the lives of our children. We have the opportunity to improve the lives of Texas children, from prioritizing early education and improving the CPS system to addressing school safety and the mental health issues that underlie the tragic episodes that have shattered Texas communities and families. We have an opportunity to intensify our fight against the despicable crime of human trafficking. And when it comes to property taxes, we have an opportunity to reform a broken system that is taxing Texans out of their homes.”
Bonnen, whose father died last legislative session, briefly choked up when telling the gathering about advice his father shared. “My father always told us, ‘leave it better than you found it.’ That was my dad’s advice to me on the day I was first sworn into the Texas House and it would be his advice to me today. Let’s be sure that when we adjourn…we leave this House and our state better than we found them.”
Lawmakers began the 86th session flush with cash relative to several recent legislative sessions. On Monday, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar predicted the state will collect more than $119 billion over a two-year period beginning in 2020. That amount represents a $9 billion, or roughly 8 percent, increase over the current biennium. Because the Legislature only meets in odd-numbered years, it must build budgets that includes two years’ worth of spending. Hegar’s revenue estimate sets the stage for the primary function of lawmakers, which is to adopt a budget. The state’s constitution says lawmakers cannot allow spending to exceed the amount of money that the comptroller projects.
And while social issues, such as the bathroom bill or abortion restrictions, dominated several of the past sessions, this year’s Legislature has vowed to deal with a more significant public policy issue: revamping the way education in Texas is funded and thereby providing relief for the ever-growing level of property taxes charged at the local level.
Although at one time there had been a field of seven declared candidates to replace Straus, Bonnen emerged out of the pack almost immediately following last November’s election. After several weekends of intense lobbying, Bonnen declared on November 12 that he had secured the commitments of 109 fellow House members. He needed 76 to win. In hindsight, many suggest Bonnen was raised to become House speaker. While a student at nearby St. Edward’s University, Bonnen worked for the sergeant at arms of the Texas House. He won his first election to the House in 1996 at age 24. His 22 years serving the Legislature have made him a master of House rules, a potent tool in the legislative process. He emerged as a key lieutenant for Straus during Straus’s five terms as speaker and has acted as a foil to Patrick, who did not get along with Straus.
Bonnen briefly sat down with Texas Monthly to discuss his objectives as House Speaker. This is a recording of that conversation: