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McNeely: Bonnen has good first session as speaker

Dennis Bonnen’s first legislative session as speaker was lauded by many legislators, on both sides of the political aisle, as a success.

He managed to keep the House’s eye on the prize of reforming Texas’ outmoded and underfunded school finance system.

Bonnen, a Republican from Lake Jackson, started in the House in 1997 — at the age of 24. He’s now 47.

The speaker back then was Pete Laney, a Democrat from Hale Center, in the Panhandle. Laney was beginning his fifth year as speaker, of what would turn out to be 10 years.

His attitude in presiding over the House was to respect members to represent their districts and help them do it.

His cooperative and respectful style deserves at least partial credit for the fact that during the decade he presided, neither Gov. George W. Bush, nor his successor, Gov. Rick Perry, had to call the Legislature back into special session. Not once.

Bonnen soon was on Laney’s team. Later, he was credited with using his long legislative experience and relationships to help restore some calm to a body often in turmoil for more than a decade.

That spirit of bipartisan cooperation took a large hit in 2001, when a Republican-controlled Legislative Redistricting Board drew House districts for the 2002 elections gerrymandered to benefit Republicans.

In the elections, Republicans boosted their number of seats in the 150-member House to 88 from 72. In 2003, the Republicans elected their first speaker in more than a century — Tom Craddick of Midland.

Craddick’s more autocratic leadership style wore thin after a few years — even with Republicans.

At the end of his third term, 11 Republican members — of what came to be called “The ABCs,” for Anybody But Craddick — gathered at one of their homes.

They elected from among themselves a speaker candidate. It was Joe Straus of San Antonio, who had served less than four years.

The idea was to reach a deal with the Democrats to back their guy for speaker. When the House convened for its session in 2009, Straus and the Democratic members — by then briefly back up to 74 — moved past the magic number of 75 to be able to elect Straus speaker.

But, even though he gradually picked up more Republican supporters, the majority of Republicans still opposed the idea of a speaker chosen mostly by Democrats.

Bonnen, however, also became a player on Straus’s team. During his third, fourth and fifth terms as speaker, he chose Bonnen as his speaker pro tem — first in line to assume the gavel if Straus had to leave the speaker’s chair for awhile.

The House Republican Caucus in 2018 attempted to get complete consensus to support whichever of their number got a majority vote in the caucus.

Bonnen had not been angling to be speaker. But eventually, after Strauss decided not to seek a sixth term as speaker, about 40 of Bonnen’s Republican House colleagues started a move to draft him.

One reason they wanted him was his combative streak — someone who would stand up to the Senate presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Bonnen agreed to run, and within days said he had enough votes pledged — including several Democrats — to be elected speaker.

On opening day of the Legislature in January, Bonnen was elected unanimously.

As a sign of his experience and his effort to restore the bipartisan attitude in play when he first came to the House, Bonnen resolved to follow his combative urges sparingly, and seek cooperation.

He, Patrick and Abbott had a news conference at the governor’s mansion the day before the session began, endorsing a school finance makeover. They called for enhancing teacher pay and retirement benefits and health care support.

They also endorsed efforts to raise enough money from other sources to reduce siphoning off local property taxes to support the state’s presumed share of school costs.They briefly endorsed increasing the state sales tax by a penny to allow cutting property taxes. But that died of its own weight, when even conservative legislators opposed it. It never got a vote in the full House or Senate.

At this point, the dust is still settling from the session-end flurry. Closer analysis may uncover some problems, but fFor now, it looks like Bonnen had a fairly harmonious, productive first session.

— Dave McNeely’s column appears Thursday.

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