This Texas lawmaker stands alone as he casts ‘shocking’ votes

‘It is never OK to target personal homes or businesses’: Texas state Rep. Jonathan Stickland

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Ron Paul-style libertarian Republican from Bedford, was announced that his bill legalizing permitless carry was “dead.”
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State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Ron Paul-style libertarian Republican from Bedford, was announced that his bill legalizing permitless carry was “dead.”

No one may be more accustomed to standing alone in the Texas House than Rep. Jonathan Stickland.

That’s where the Bedford Republican, long known as firebrand and political bomb-thrower, has been on a number of votes recently.

Stickland is drawing ire after he was the only one to cast dissenting votes against bills touching on school finance, shoring up the retired teachers pension fund and even letting active duty military defer property tax payments.

“The actual votes he’s making are shocking,” a House member said privately. “He’s a joke on the floor, the least respected member of a 150-member body.”

Now, with less than a month to go before the session wraps up, some wonder what Stickland has in store — or what else he has to say — especially as a key House deadline looms Thursday, the last day for members to consider and tentatively approve House bills.

He has helped derail legislation in the past. Two years ago, he and the Texas Freedom Caucus, frustrated that their bills weren’t advancing, killed dozens of bills in what is now known as the Mother’s Day Massacre.

“Could he do it again?” asked Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. “Things happen or don’t happen that present an opportunity to a perceptive and smart member.

“Will he act on it? Who knows?”

Stickland and several of his colleagues did not respond to requests for comment.

“Rep. Stickland has always preferred to lob grenades rather than work across the aisle on solutions that would benefit his district and all Texans,” said Brian Hodgdon, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. “People have noticed his votes and that he’s on an island.”

Texas lawmakers have until May 27 to pass laws.

‘Political theater’

Before the legislative session began, Stickland — who narrowly won his 2018 re-election bid — told the Star-Telegram that he wanted to take a new approach to the session.

“I’m not changing what I believe,” he said. “But I am changing the way I do it. I’m still willing to fight. But I think I’m going to try a little more honey than vinegar this time.”

Even so, Stickland found himself at the center of one of the most dramatic issues of this session.

His plan known as “constitutional carry,” which would let Texans carry handguns without having a license, prompted a gun rights advocate to visit the homes of some lawmakers, including House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, when legislators were in Austin.

Bonnen, who said he has received death threats this session, declared Stickland’s bill dead.

So did Stickland. “I cannot participate in political theater and ask that Texans come to Austin to spend their time and money for a piece of legislation that has no path to success,” he wrote in a statement.

His involvement in the issue and his votes against popular bills other House members support have drawn him support from a faithful fan base back home. But it also encourages critics to ramp up opposition.

Stickland narrowly won his 2018 re-election bid with 49.8 percent of the vote against Democratic challenger Steve Riddell’s 47.43 percent. Libertarian Eric P. Espinoza claimed 2.75 percent of the vote.

“Votes against popular policies put him in electoral jeopardy as the demographics of his district change and opponents challenge his positions,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “He had a tough fight in 2018 and will again in 2020.

“These votes, some hard to explain to voters who aren’t paying close attention to the process, make him a target for Democrats.”

‘Be quiet’

Stickland last month bumped four bills from the local and consent calendar, which is a place where local and uncontroversial bills generally are sent for easy passage. Among the bills were measures to prevent suicides of minors and a plan to create a mental health task force for students.

“Today is the first local and consent calendar and I’ve got a lot of questions,” he tweeted.

He is known to question or speak out on any given bill at any given time.

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, told him April 27 during a floor debate: “Well, I know Stickland you’re not going to vote for it any way, so if you could just … be quiet.”

“That’s the way he’s always been. He has always basically done what Empower Texans wants him to do,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, referring to the Austin-based conservative group and political action committee.

Said state Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican and dean of the Tarrant County House delegation: “I don’t pay any attention to it.

“The final results are the only thing that makes a difference.”

House votes

“Rep. Stickland has earned a reputation as one of the few dissidents to the expansion of government or extra state spending,” Rottinghaus said. “His political brand depends on adhering to those principles.”

He has been among members to cast votes against measures, for instance, regarding health insurance coverage for drugs for stage-four breast cancer and that would boost criminal penalties for some family violence offenses that occur when a child is present.

Here are some bills that Stickland has been the only House member to vote against:

School finance. After his vote against House Bill 3 he tweeted that schools in his district didn’t receive their “fair share” and that the so-called Robin Hood plan “was not permanently addressed.”

Letting active duty military defer property tax payments for 60 days, House Bill 1883.

Helping shore up the retired teachers pension fund, Senate Bill 12. “I refuse to act like it’s more than a one time fix,” Stickland tweeted. “Retired teachers deserve a permanent fix to their retirement, not another band-aid. They aren’t political pawns.”

The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee was quick to respond: “Rep. Stickland is at it again,” Hodgdon said. “This time his target is retired teachers. ... It is the second time in less than a month that Rep. Stickland has blatantly disregarded the needs our public schools and our educators.

“It’s time for the citizens of HD 92 to have a representative who will support our retired teachers and who will fight to give our public schools the necessary resources to provide our children with a quality education.”

Requiring school counselors to let students know about college credit available for military service members, HB 114.

Extending the life of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — and allowing beer and wine sales on Sunday mornings and beer-to-go sales from craft breweries, HB 1545.

Letting Texans vote, through a constitutional amendment, on whether to earmark all sporting goods taxes to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission. Senate Joint Resolution 24. In recent decades, less than half of the money collected by this tax actually was used for these parks.

“In the Texas Legislature, it is probably best not to bring attention to yourself by casting a single vote against a bill,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “Among others, the Speaker will take note of those who helped him and those who didn’t.

“Those observations can have consequences since the chamber leaders in Texas are very strong and with such severe time constraints, they are going to tend to prioritize the bills proposed by people on their ‘team.’”

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.