Texas House committee to probe allegations against Speaker Dennis Bonnen

BY CASSANDRA POLLOCK

The powerful Texas House General Investigating Committee is set to launch an investigation into allegations that Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered a hardline conservative organization media credentials if it politically targeted certain Republican members in the lower chamber.

“Last night, I initiated internal discussion with General Investigating staff about procedure with the intention of launching an investigation. Our committee will be posting notice today of a public hearing which will take place on Monday, August 12,” state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, said in a letter dated Wednesday.

He was writing to state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who serves as vice chair. Earlier Wednesday, Collier wrote to Meyer requesting he “launch an immediate full investigation” into “whether not there has been a violation of any policy or rules that the committee is charged with overseeing.”

Collier specifically asked for an investigation into “the allegations relating to media credentials, as well as the circumstances and events surrounding a June 12, 2019 meeting, including any and all correspondence, statements and/or recordings related thereto.”

For the past two weeks, the House has been embroiled over the meeting between Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and Michael Quinn Sullivan, who serves as CEO of Empower Texans. Sullivan alleged that Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, who chairs the House GOP Caucus, said Empower Texans would receive long-denied media credentials in the lower chamber if its well-funded political action committee targeted 10 Republicans in the 2020 primaries. Sullivan later revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting.

Bonnen, who was first elected speaker in January, has forcefully disputed Sullivan’s account of the meeting. And on Monday, he emailed members an apology for saying “terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally” — but did not explicitly mention Sullivan’s alleged quid pro quo offered by the speaker.

The General Investigating Committee, comprised of five House members, has sweeping jurisdiction and holds subpoena power. A person who disobeys a subpoena by the committee may be cited or prosecuted for contempt, according to House rules, which were adopted at the beginning of the 86th legislative session in January. The committee can also meet at any time or place and has the jurisdiction to enter into a closed-door meeting if deemed necessary.

Since Sullivan revealed he had recorded the meeting, Bonnen, along with a number of Republicans and Democrats, have called for the audio to be released. Sullivan hasn’t yet indicated when — or if — he will.ur morning newsletter

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said in a statement Wednesday that Collier “is right to make this call and has my full support in this effort.” He added that the committee should take up the allegations because “there are simply too many rumors about what was said or not said in this meeting for anyone who has not heard the recording to have confidence they have the truth.”

Earlier Wednesday, a member of the committee, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said on Facebook that, since there was a chance the allegations could come before the panel, it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment. He did, though, offer general thoughts on how he thinks the process should play out.

“We should not rush to judgment but we should not drag our feet either,” Krause said. “We should not condemn anyone arbitrarily but also must not be scared to move forward if we find evidence of wrongdoing.”

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

A cloud of uncertainty lingers over the Houston Independent School District. Its list of critics continues to grow.

Board of trustees in-fighting, failing schools and Texas Education Agency (TEA) investigations are plaguing the Houston ISD. Self-inflicted wounds seem to be dismantling its integrity and compromising the quality of education. This has led to public mistrust and cries for reform.

“The HISD Board of Trustees has been a culture of dysfunction and they seem to be in a gridlock state of that,” said Jennifer Cross of HISD Supporters, a collective comprising several thousand members who are sharing information and opinions intending to make positive changes to the HISD. 

The beleaguered district is very close to receiving state-mandated governance through a board of managers. Four HISD schools have failed the past four years and concerns are they might fail again. Cross said HB 1842 mandates any school that fails for five consecutive years must close or accept a state-appointed board of managers. 

“There’s four schools that have been failing for four consecutive years and if any of them hit the fifth then that could trigger it,” she said.

HISD officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The HISD is currently under investigation by TEA for alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act that occurred in 2018. It has been reported that some members of the board held private discussions regarding the dismissal of then Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, according to Fox 26 Houston. The conversations may have contravened Open Meetings Act laws. 

Reform Austin reached out to the TEA but a spokesperson wrote, via email, that the agency could not comment on pending investigations.

Fox 26 also reported the board of trustees not only voted to remove Lathan but supposedly attempted to replace her with former HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra. Lathan was subsequently considered for reinstatement — replete with an apology—at a press conference four days later.

The district hasn’t had permanent leadership since March of 2018 when Superintendent Richard Carranza left to helm New York City public schools. Carranza seemingly exited the HISD with a bad taste in his mouth, stating in an Atlantic article that his proposed reforms nosedived. 

“Unfortunately, all of those proposals [in Houston] went by the wayside,” he said in the Atlantic article. “As soon as I left, it seemed like people just didn’t have the stomach to take the fight.” 

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) agrees that the HISD has lost its way.

“We’ve had consistently bad performance from the HISD board of trustees. And I’ve been following this as long as early testimony back in 2015,” he said.

“I started calling for a board of governors as inevitable on October 18, 2018, after they made a mockery of the Open Meetings Act.”

Bettencourt introduced SB 1385 to address the divisive situation. The bill is an attempt to gain insight into the style of governance under a board of managers. He said you would have people examining the entire district, not just the trustee’s district. He believes the implementation of a board of managers is inescapable.

“I think we’re virtually certain to have that between the academic performance, the Open Meetings Act violations and other issues that are being considered,” Bettencourt said.

Gov. Greg Abbott even got involved in the criticism of the embattled district. Earlier this year he slammed the HISD board of trustees in a tweet.  

“What a joke. HISD leadership is a disaster. Their self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

In recent years, myriad districts throughout Texas have been subject to a state-appointed board of managers, including four in the San Antonio-area, the Marlin ISD near Waco, Beaumont ISD and El Paso ISD.

Christopher Adams

Christopher Adams

Christoper Adams is a freelance writer/journalist residing in southwest Texas, currently writing for several online and print publications. Prior to freelancing, Chris was the co-owner of Immediait, a media company that provided commercial enterprises with visual and written content for social media platforms and websites. He also spent four years as a reporter/staff writer for two Texas newspapers, The Fort Stockton Pioneer and Del Rio News-Herald.

Abbott Discusses “The Pathway Forward” as Texas Top 3 Visit El Paso

Texas’ top three officials, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, met with members of the El Paso State Legislative Delegation Wednesday in response to last weekend’s mass shooting in the city that killed 22 and injured 26.

In a press conference following a private meeting with the state legislators, Gov. Abbott addressed the public, saying, “The time for talking is over. The time for action began today.” 

Responding to what he called a “call for urgency…to respond quickly” expressed by El Paso representatives, Gov. Abbott announced the state would provide more than $5 million to assist El Paso local government and organizations to help with recovery and community healing.

Recalling last year’s school shooting in Santa Fe, Gov. Abbott stated the need for “new and different strategies that go above and beyond what we did” in 2018, when he signed 25 proposals into law.

In a shift from his earlier comments that focused on fighting mental health issues, Gov. Abbott labeled domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and racism as key factors in this attack.

He then spoke about the need to work with federal and local officials to identify terrorists, hate groups and “white racists, or any type of racists,” in addition to meeting with leaders of social media companies whose platforms provide forums for the promotion of racism and hate. 

He went on to say that it’s important to make sure that guns are not in the hands of “deranged killers,” without infringing on the “constitutional” rights of gun owners. 

As for next steps, Gov. Abbott spoke about putting together round tables in Austin and El Paso that will include experts who can “give advice…on things that we can do immediately…to make all Texans safer. Our job is to keep Texans safe.”

For a primer on how Gov. Abbott and other legislators responded directly after the shooting, click here.

Texas lawmakers may have inadvertently created a corporate tax loophole

In a state struggling to adequately finance its schools, legislators have passed a measure that threatens to further reduce funding allocated to education. 

This November, Texans will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting the imposition of an individual income tax. But inconsistencies with language used in the ballot measure could uncover a loophole, allowing businesses to evade taxation.  

The problem is centered around the use of the word “individual.” The measure amends the Texas Constitution’s section on taxation, which uses the term “natural persons” throughout the text, rather than “individual.” 

Wary of potential legal challenges resulting from the chosen language, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) offered an amendment to House Joint Resolution 38 that would have reverted “individual” back to “natural person.”  

HJR 38 Senate sponsor, Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), opposed the amendment, insisting during deliberations that a “natural person” and an “individual” are synonymous. 

“The legislative intent of HJR 38 is that an ‘individual’ is just like what it sounds: a single human being,” Fallon said. He claimed that ‘individual’ is “the common meaning of the word that most people understand, and it means the exact same thing as a ‘natural person.”

Texas’ nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board (LBB), a state agency that conducts fiscal evaluations for proposed legislation, seems to disagree. In the analysis of HJR 38, the LBB found that “the term ‘individuals’ is not defined and could be interpreted to include entities that are currently subject to the state’s franchise tax.” And because of the loophole that HJR 38 creates, “the joint resolution could result in a significant loss of state franchise tax revenue.” 

The franchise tax, imposed on entities formed, organized, or doing business in Texas, is a significant source of public school funding. In the 2018-29 budget cycle, the franchise tax brought in over $7 billion in revenue. The Texas comptroller has estimated it will bring in approximately $8 billion in revenue for the 2020-21 budget cycle.  

Revenue lost due to HJR 38’s corporate tax loophole could be detrimental to public schools already struggling to keep their doors open. In November, voters may not realize that they could be voting away funding for Texas schools. 

“‘Natural person’ would bring clarity to this, and the fact of the matter is, you could get more support for this particular legislation as opposed to leaving this confusion and inviting litigation concerning the definition,” West said, advocating for the amendment. 

West was not the only Democrat pushing for uniform language. 

“Do you know how many times ‘natural person’ is used in Article 8 of the Texas Constitution?” Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) asked Fallon. 

“Six times,” Johnson said. “The proposed bill changes it once. And so what we’re going to be left with is a statute that refers to ‘natural persons’ in five places and ‘individuals’ in lieu of ‘natural persons’ once. And does that concern you that we may be muddling legislative intent?”

So why was Sen. Fallon so opposed to amending the verbiage for the sake of clarity and consistency? 

Too much time and too much effort. 

“Any change to this bill as it sits right now would absolutely kill it. Because I’ve talked to the speaker, I’ve talked to the members of the House,” Fallon said. Adopting the amendment would have required an additional round of approval from the Texas House, which could not be guaranteed. To avoid the possibility of killing the bill, Fallon pushed to keep the bill as written, potentially harming education finance in the process. 

Texas voters will have the final say in approving or rejecting the constitutional amendment. But it’s difficult to say how many will understand the implications of what this amendment could mean for Texas schools.