Lege Lines: Only 139 Days to Go for the 86th Texas Legislature
New faces and leaders in the spotlight as the Lege gets underway
Ah, the calm before the storm. It was nothing but jovial, halcyon times at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8, the first day of the 86th Texas Legislature. The halls buzzed with advocates, spectators, and kids hoping to see how the sausage is made. In the House, bipartisanship reigned as both Democrats and Republicans lauded Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the first new speaker of the House in a decade.
Reps including Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, and Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, praised Bonnen's leadership style. "In his 22 years of experience, he has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I've ever served with," said Thompson, who has 24 more years of experience than Bonnen. "Dennis is a man who keeps his word. When Dennis says he wants the House to be united, I trust him."
Bonnen's ascension to speaker wasn't supported by all Dems from the outset. When former Speaker Joe Straus announced his exit after serving since 2009, among the names floated to replace him was Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. But before that caucus, now 12 members stronger, could huddle behind a Dem candidate, Bonnen had all but sealed the deal by November, announcing that he'd scored well over the 76 needed votes to win.
Often described as "aggressive" and not shy about butting heads, Bonnen, who was only 24 when first elected in 1996, is more conservative than his predecessor. He voted for the contentious "Show Me Your Papers" amendment to 2017's anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4, allowing police officers to question the immigration status of anyone they pull over, and signed on as co-author of last session's anti-trans "bathroom bill." As such, his speakership is applauded by anti-choice group Texas Right to Life, who gave Bonnen a 100% score for the past four sessions. Yet in November, 31 of the 67 Dems had already signed on for a Bonnen speakership – time will tell if he lives up to their glowing hopes and expectations.
After being elected unanimously, Bonnen offered a call for unity and laid out his intentions and priorities before the House membership. Property tax and school finance reforms top the list, which also includes repair work for Child Protective Services, school safety and mental health, human trafficking, and benefits for retired teachers. Now in the spotlight, Bonnen established his personal narrative, as a dyslexic small-town kid growing up into a hardworking politician, tough but fair.
"When people call me 'challenging,' believe me, my dad is nodding his head in agreement from above," Bonnen told the packed House. "My dad always told us, 'Say what you mean and do what you say.'" (Bonnen's older brother Greg also serves in the House, representing Galveston County.) "So I've never seen the point in sugarcoating things. Those of you who know me know that I operate with an efficiency and honesty that can leave a mark." Perhaps hinting he'll hold firm against culture-war antics, Bonnen assured members he didn't want them to get "caught up in things that don't lead to real results."
Meanwhile in the upper chamber, after heartfelt words, senators elected Kirk Watson, D-Austin, their president pro tempore, which puts Watson third in the line of succession and at the helm of the Senate when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is out of town – as he was on the first day of session. Rather than do his job – which in past years he's gleefully done with much grandstanding – the second most powerful man in Texas was at the White House, helping fabricate a foundation of fear about our state and nation's nonexistent border crisis. Priorities! In Patrick's absence, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, led proceedings, marking the very first time a woman has done so in its history, underscoring the upper chamber's not-sexist-at-all tone.
While it was all celebratory feel-good vibes in both chambers this week, don't count on the kumbaya spirit to keep flowing for the next 139 days. At the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature, it's not a question of whether a vulnerable population will get screwed over – it's a question of which one(s) this time and just how bad will it be. Because of that assured grim reality, sparks are bound to fly. Stay tuned.