January 3, 2020

Capitol Buzzes with Conflicting Theories on Speaker's
Use of Budget Panel Chair for Punishment or Rewards

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The Texas House ushered in 2020 this week amid speculation on the possibility of GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen using the lower chamber's budget-writing committee as a staging ground for revenge against Republicans who abandoned him in the midst of a colleague targeting scandal last year.

But the veteran coastal lawmaker who'll be giving up the gavel a year from now or sooner might be more inclined to leave a lingering opening for Appropriations Committee chair open as a way to reward allies across the aisle by allowing the panel's second highest-ranking member to serve as the powerful panel's acting leader until a new speaker is elected in early 2021.

The most coveted committee plum in the west wing of the statehouse has been up for grabs since Republican John Zerwas of Richmond stepped down this past fall before taking a job with the University of Texas System. Democratic State Rep. Oscar Longoria of Mission has been the budget committee's vice-chairman for the past three years.

The four-term lawmaker from the Rio Grande Valley has served on the Appropriations Committee since he entered the Legislature seven years ago. Longoria has been leading a budget panel subcommittee that oversees spending on public safety, criminal justice, the judiciary and general government since early 2017.

Longoria, who's running for re-election this year without major party opposition, has appeared to command widespread respect among Republicans and Democrats alike as a state lawmaker who's been relatively low-key and non-confrontational since he arrived in Austin in 2013.

While Longoria has been one of the House's most conservative Democrats, a decision by Bonnen to keep him in the lead role on appropriations won't sit well with partisan Republicans at a time when the panel will be laying the framework for a biennial spending plan that could have a record-shattering price tag by the time it clears the Legislature next year.

But Bonnen hasn't appeared to be concerned with partisan politics since he announced last summer that he wouldn't be a candidate for a new term in his hometown district as a victim of his own clandestine scheming. Bonnen had been coming off a spectacular regular session that produced an unprecedented school funding plan when he made a career-killing pitch for help on the hard right with a GOP primary election hit list that contained the names of 10 House Republicans who'd alienated him in the leadership fight that he won in late 2018. .

Bonnen appeared to think he had a chance to survive bribery allegations that conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan fired at him in connection with a secret meeting in the speaker's office in June. But Bonnen knew he was doomed when a dozen GOP representatives turned against him in a collective move that prompted his resignation announcement and a subsequent search for ways to punish them.

The budget panel chief vacancy could be a potential payback opportunity if the speaker thought he could find someone to do the dirty work as a short-term chairman who would probably be replaced after a new speaker is elected at the outset of the regular session next year.

Conjecture has bubbled at the Capitol during the holiday season about the possible appointment of a Republican who'd been a Bonnen team member until the bitter end. State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and the speaker's brother, State Rep. Greg Bonnen of Friendswood, have been mentioned as potential picks for the opening that the Zerwas departure left in its wake.

Greg Bonnen appeared to do a solid job last year in his role as the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the funding for a historic school finance package. Capriglione's stock has been on the rise in recent years as Bonnen's choice in early 2019 to chair a budget panel subcommittee on infrastructure investment.

But Bonnen the speaker might find it difficult to recruit a colleague for retribution assistance as a short-term appropriations panel chair when such a person could be left out in the cold when leadership assignments are dished out in 2021 by a new speaker who could be one of the current targets of the departing House leader's wrath in the interim.

Bonnen appears determined to stay on as speaker until his first term ends after the November election. He could expect to be removed from the helm of the lower chamber, however, if Governor Greg Abbott calls a special session before that time on gun violence or an unforeseen issue.


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