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While the eyes of the nation have been on Washington, I continue to marvel about what is going on in Austin, especially at the hands of the new Speaker of the House.

Last week I told how Speaker Dade Phelan appointed to head the House Elections Committee a Republican legislator who had proudly flown to Philadelphia days after the November election in an attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s official results on behalf of Donald Trump. Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) tweeted breathlessly that afternoon, “Philly is crazy. I see dead people voting. …”

I won’t comment on Cain’s sanity, but he may have been hallucinating. Dead people tend to vote in the dark. Two dead people did vote in Pennsylvania. A man was charged with registering his late mother and mother-in-law and voting by mail in his mother’s name. He told authorities the vote was cast for Trump. No evidence of dead Democrats voting was presented in any of the multitude of lawsuits filed on behalf of Trump in Pennsylvania.

So we can expect Cain, who sees ghost voters, to press for more restrictive voting laws impacting Democrats. But Phelan made another appointment that is even more disturbing, especially for its potential impact on San Antonio and other Texas cities. 

The story begins a year and a half ago with a scandal that opened the way for Phelan to become speaker. His predecessor, Dennis Bonnen, capped off what was widely regarded as a successful first term as speaker with an explosive scandal. Bonnen had met secretly with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the head of a group called Empower Texans, which has been working for years to try to make the Texas House of Representatives even more conservative than it already is. For example, the group repeatedly tried to remove former Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio from the speakership before he chose not to run for reelection in 2018.

Sullivan claimed after the meeting that Bonnen tried to cut a deal with him if Sullivan would use his ample political action committee war chest to find and support opponents for 10 moderate Republican members. Bonnen declared that Sullivan was lying, unaware that Sullivan had recorded the meeting. When Sullivan released the recording it became clear that it was Bonnen who was lying.

For a speaker to have been secretly plotting against members of his own party was so scandalous that Bonnen, after polling party members, announced he was not running for reelection, paving the way for Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, to become speaker.

But Bonnen had a co-conspirator in the meeting with him, Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), a key lieutenant. Bonnen calculatingly left the room as Burrows gave Sullivan the names of the 10 Republicans they wanted him to oppose.

So how was Burrows held accountable for his participation in a scandal serious enough to oust a powerful speaker of the House? Here’s how: Phelan appointed him to one of the most sought-after positions in the House: chairmanship of the Calendars Committee. 

In the typical session, only about one in five of the thousands of bills passed become laws. The Calendars Committee decides which ones of those approved by committees reach the House floor for a vote. Many bills die in that committee, and no one is in a better position to kill a bill without fingerprints than its chairman.

The power of the position was bitterly stated by a Democratic member of the San Antonio delegation: “It means we all have to be nice to him.”

That will be a challenge not only for the 10 Republicans whom Burrows sought to unseat, but also for all the chamber’s urban Democrats. Burrows has been a ranking officer in the Republicans’ war on Democratic cities.

The reason Bonnen and Burrows gave Sullivan for wanting to unseat the 10 Republicans was that they had successfully opposed a pet bill of right-wing groups. The bill would have prohibited local governments – cities, counties, and school boards – from spending public money on lobbyists working the Legislature. 

The bill would have also prohibited cities, counties, and school boards from paying dues to statewide organizations that lobby on their behalf, such as the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Association of Counties, and the Texas Association of School Boards.

The first person on target list, if only for alphabetical reasons, was Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio), who succeeded Joe Straus in representing a district that runs northward from Alamo Heights. As a former president of the Alamo Heights Independent School District board who also served three years on the board of the Texas Association of School Boards, Allison makes no apologies for spending tax money for the services of such organizations.

“They provide invaluable assistance for school districts,” he said. “Not only for lobbying, but also for policy research and buying power.” 

He also praised the Texas Municipal League, especially for its representation of smaller cities.

“I represent Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills, and Olmos Park,” he said. “They were adamantly opposed to the bill.”

State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Burrows and organizations such as the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation argue that local elected officials use tax money to lobby against the interest of their taxpayers. Such calculations are in the eyes of the beholders, and Allison argues that local taxpayers can remove elected officials who work against their interests. 

“I’m a strong advocate of local control,” he said.

Burrows’ contempt for cities – where a large majority of Texans live – is not limited to their use of lobbyists. In his secretly recorded conversation with Sullivan, he bragged of discussing with the governor the idea of taking the 2 cents of sales tax cities can claim and using it to cut school property taxes.

“I just want the local governments to have a worse session next session, by ending taxpayer funded lobby and stealing their two pennies” of sales tax, Burrows told Sullivan.

Earlier in the meeting, Bonnen expressed his attitude toward cities: “Any mayor, county judge that was dumb-ass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of  the Legislature for cities and counties.”

Bonnen is gone, but by appointing Burrows to chair the Calendars Committee, the new speaker – himself a cheerleader for banning lobbyists for local governments – has shown his own attitude toward cities and counties. 

That’s not what Phelan communicated to the roughly 30 Democratic representatives – overwhelmingly from urban districts – who pledged to support him for speaker last November, giving him the majority he wasn’t getting from Republicans alone. 

Many of these Democrats, not to mention those 10 Republicans whom Burrows tried to unseat, are angry. But you won’t hear them say so publicly. If they want to pass any bills, they need to be nice.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.