When conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan released a secretly recorded audio tape of a meeting between him and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, it caused a scandal that led Bonnen to announce days later that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020. In the recording, Bonnen offered Sullivan House press credentials if his organization spread negative publicity against some House Republicans up for reelection in 2020. But Bonnen also said things that infuriated city and county leaders across the state – that he “hates” local government, and wanted to make the next legislative session difficult for municipalities.
James Riddlesperger Jr., a political science professor at Texas Christian University, says there’s always been tension between state and local government in Texas.
“In recent years, we’ve seen some of the local governments, particularly city governments, become more liberal than the state as a whole, so you have the state Legislature, which is really quite conservative, trying to put a damper on some of that,” Riddlesperger says. “No one has ever cared whether power is at the local level, the state level or the national level. What they care about is policy.”
A variety of issues divide local governments from the state, Riddlesperger says – from flood control in Houston to the proposed border wall in El Paso.
“But the big, overriding issue at this point is that the state government would like to get access to some of the revenues that are generated by property taxes at the local government level,” he says.
With Bonnen leaving his position as speaker, Riddlesperger says the race to replace him before the 2021 session could turn, at least partially, on the conflict between the state and local government. One example of such conflict is Denton’s vote to ban fracking within city limits. State officials quickly passed a law, at the behest of the energy industry, that overturned the city’s decision, Riddlesperger says.
“Conservatives have always believed in local control,” Riddlesperger says. “[But] when local control goes contrary to their ideological agenda, then they want to take local control away.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.