New Tarrant lawmaker is a conciliatory conservative

Posted Saturday, Feb. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Committee assignments for Tarrant's House members

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth

Criminal Jurisprudence

Energy Resources

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

Government Efficiency and Reform

International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs

Rep. Nicole Collier

Defense and Veterans Affairs

Local and Consent Calendars

Public Health

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth

Chair, House Administration

Calendars

Licensing and Administrative Procedures

State Affairs

Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth

Land and Resource Management

Special Purpose Districts

Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth

Elections

Human Services

Rules and Resolutions

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth

County Affairs

Special Purpose Districts

Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington

Vice-chair, Higher Education

Appropriations

Rules and Resolutions

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Hurst

County Affairs

Special Purpose Districts

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie

Environmental Regulation

Insurance

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington

Defense and Veterans Affairs

Public Health

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AUSTIN -- A few weeks before the start of the 2013 Legislature, incoming GOP Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Tea Party-backed conservative, placed a phone call to state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat whom Republicans had unsuccessfully targeted for defeat in the November elections.

"I said, 'You know, you're perceived as one of the more liberal senators in the state of Texas and I'm perceived as one of the more conservative members of the Texas House,'" the 29-year-old Bedford lawmaker said last week in recalling his side of the conversation. "'I think it would be a great statement to send back to our constituents that we could put all that aside ... and focus on getting through stuff that helps Texas.'"

The result was bipartisan legislation by the two lawmakers that aims to assist the children of military families. Stickland's House bill already has 80-plus supporters, more than enough to secure passage if it comes to the House floor.

After four weeks as one of five new Republican House members from Tarrant County, Stickland is asserting himself with what some might consider an unlikely style that couples bipartisan outreach with strict adherence to his conservative principles.

Even before taking office in early January, he was reaching across party lines to forge friendships and build coalitions. He says one of his best friends in the House is Mary Gonzalez, a liberal Democrat from El Paso who is a strong supporter of abortion rights and equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.

But at the same time, Stickland, who ran for office as "a conservative Christian Republican," is rigidly embracing the themes that got him elected. He has pledged a "100 percent pro-life voting record," says abortion "must be stopped," and defends marriage as a union "between a man, a woman and God."

"I'm committed to advancing the conservative cause as much as I can," he said last week during an interview in his State Capitol office.

Stickland is attracting widening attention with a so-called Hobby Lobby bill, which has ignited outrage from Democrats and from other critics. The bill exempts Hobby Lobby Stores and other "religiously based" businesses from paying state sales and franchise taxes if they are forced to pay federal fines for not complying with contraception mandates under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as "Obamacare."

The Hobby Lobby bill

Stickland said he filed HB649 in response to threats from the White House to fine Hobby Lobby up to $1.3 million per day if the Oklahoma-based arts and crafts chain refuses to expand employee insurance coverage to include "the morning after pill" and the "week after pill." Hobby Lobby, which isn't taking a position on the bill, has joined several other companies in a lawsuit against the administration, saying the mandate violates their religious beliefs against abortion.

"The federal government should not be passing down these kinds of mandates and assessing these kinds of penalties," Stickland said, describing his bill as the first of its kind in the nation.

Companies that pay the federal fines could qualify for the exemption, Stickland said. Addressing concerns that the bill would reduce potential state tax revenue, he said the legislation protects jobs by helping companies that could be forced out of business by oppressive fines from the federal government.

And, he said, it also makes a bold statement against federal overreach and for religious freedom.

"It's going to be a huge issue because it covers the gamut of the conservative Republican platform right now," he said. "Pro-life. Pro-religious freedom. Lowering taxes. Pro-10th Amendment. Anti-Obamacare. Anti-federal government. It covers everything but guns, we think."

While getting support from conservative organizations, Stickland's bill has also drawn a fierce pushback.

"I think the bill demonstrates that the war on birth control that was declared by the Texas Legislature last session continues, and Rep. Stickland is fanning the flames of that war," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the influence of social conservatives on education. "If the Legislature makes the mistake of moving the bill forward, we will actively oppose it."

Even his friend Mary Gonzalez draws the line over the Hobby Lobby issue. "Oh no," she said when asked if she supports HB649. "That bill I find potentially problematic. No, it is problematic. Not even potentially."

Newspaper notices

Stickland has also drawn opposition from another front -- the Texas newspaper industry -- with a bill that would allow counties, cities, school districts and other political subdivisions to post public notices on Internet websites instead of newspapers, as required by law. Stickland said the requirement, which generates ad revenue for newspapers, also places a hefty financial burden on local governments and no longer makes sense in the Internet age, when newspaper readership is declining. Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck and Tarrant County Judge Glenn Whitley support the bill, Stickland said.

"It's outrageous that taxpayers have to pay twice -- once for the ad space and then again for a copy of the newspaper -- just to get information that can be provided for free," Stickland said when announcing the bill.

But Donnis Baggett, executive president of legislative affairs for the Texas Press Association, counters that placing notices on the Internet would make them harder for people to find and easier for governments to skirt public disclosure requirements. Moreover, he added, "a lot of citizens don't have computers, don't want computers and don't have Internet service."

"This is a guy who ran on the issue of transparency, and one of the first bills he files would reduce transparency," said Baggett, whose organization is opposing the measure.

Other Stickland bills include a proposed constitutional amendment protecting private schools from state and local regulation and a measure to change the name of the Texas Railroad Commission to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission to reflect the commission's modern-day duties of energy regulation. Stickland had filed a total of five bills as of Saturday, according to the Texas Legislature's website.

Stickland, during a debate on House rules, also proposed that every bill considered during this session include a notation showing where in the Texas Constitution the proposal was either allowed or required. The measure was defeated by a voice vote.

Political newcomer

Stickland was elected to replace Rep. Todd Smith in the 92nd House District, which includes Hurst, Euless and Bedford. Smith, an eight-term House member, was defeated in a bid for the state Senate in November.

With no prior political experience, Stickland was widely perceived as the underdog in his Republican primary race against Bedford City Councilman Roger Fisher. But after knocking on more than 7,000 doors and drawing strong support from energized Tea Party activists, he defeated Fisher by 60 percent to 40 percent. He went on to beat Libertarian Sean Fatzinger with 80 percent of the vote.

Stickland, an oil-and-gas consultant, lives in Bedford with his wife, Krissy, and their two daughters, ages 6 and 3. The family attends First Baptist Church of Hurst.

Although he strongly supports conservative principles of limited government and low taxes, Stickland said he wanted to depart from the in-your-face style often associated with Tea Party activists and hard-line conservatives to pursue a more conciliatory -- and potentially more constructive -- style as a lawmaker.

"I'm trying to earn respect down here for being a hard worker, being honest and doing everything out of love," he said. "I think that advances the cause much more than some of the more, you know, angry type folks who want to resort to more harsh language."

Gonzalez, who is also a new House member, said she and Stickland became friends after they met in freshman orientation. "He was the first one to come up and talk to me," she said. "He was just really welcoming and really inviting and wanted to have discussions about ... the issues that affect Texas."

Although Stickland supported then-Rep. Mark Shelton in Davis' re-election race last year, he said he wanted to establish a constructive working relationship with the Democratic senator when he called her before the legislative session. He asked Davis to help him on legislation that allows children of military service members to have 10 days of excused absence from school when their parent or guardian is deployed or returns from deployment. The Democratic senator agreed and filed a companion bill in the Senate.

"She's been great to work with," Stickland said. Davis, in a recent interview, recalled Stickland's overtures and said she hopes the efforts will pave the way for "many bipartisan efforts in our delegation this session."

"We represent a common community," she said, "and I know that our constituents hope we set partisanship aside and work together in a way that reflects their concerns."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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