AUSTIN — Greg Abbott’s job as Texas’ top lawyer placed him in the line of fire last week when his likely Democratic opponent called on him to stop defending lawsuits over school funding and gay marriage.
State Sen. Wendy Davis said the attorney general should settle a lawsuit brought by 600-plus school districts who complain that lawmakers violated the state constitution by boosting standards while slashing per-student spending. She said Abbott was “defending the indefensible.”
Four days later, she criticized Abbott for defending the Texas ban on gay marriage, saying the law violates the U.S Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection for homosexuals.
In both cases, she said the attorney general’s obligation should be to recognize these injustices and work to rectify them rather than spend millions in taxpayer dollars on litigation. But Davis also knows these are winning issues for her, with most Texas parents frustrated by the poor performance of public schools and the growing support for gay marriage in the state.
Abbott insists his job requires him to defend all laws passed by the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. The fact that Republican primary voters think state government spends too much on schools and oppose gay marriage is a bonus for his short-term political goals.
Long term, though, it gets complicated.
Abbott has walked a fine line on school funding in his public remarks, refusing to discuss the complex litigation or the judge’s ruling last year that the current system violates the state constitution. He has promised to announce ways to improve schools without spending more money soon.
This opens the door for Davis to group Abbott with the Republican lawmakers who cut the $5.4 billion in per student spending in 2011, only to restore $3.4 billion in 2013. Suburban mothers, a critical bloc of swing voters in Texas, are still angry about those cuts.
Davis has called on Abbott to settle the case and clear the way for a special legislative session to fix the school finance system. Abbott has not ruled out a settlement, but one is unlikely until the judge issues his written ruling and Abbott has had a chance to appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court. An appeal would delay any resolution until after the Nov. 4 general election.
In the gay marriage case, Abbott has also tried to say as little as possible. In response to questions from The Associated Press, Abbott said he opposes same-sex marriage, but his office has been issuing the same statement from spokeswoman Lauren Bean for several weeks when asked about the lawsuit.
“The attorney general’s office will defend the Texas Constitution in this case just as we do in all cases where state laws are challenged in court,” Bean said. “The U.S. Supreme Court was clear that states have independent authority to establish their marriage laws. Texans adopted a constitutional amendment defining marriage. We will defend that amendment.”
Davis and Abbott both know that gay marriage is an important issue for young voters and making it a big deal in the election could turn them out for Davis.
Abbott is also defending the requirement that voters produce a government-issued photo ID card to vote. Minority groups complain the law makes it more difficult for poor people to vote, and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the NAACP and the Justice Department have filed a federal lawsuit against it.
Again, Abbott’s primary voters support the law, but it gives Davis another issue to rally her party’s base. Since her path to victory depends on boosting voter turnout, it’s another good issue for her to highlight.
Abbott and his staff say he is required to defend these lawsuits, but that’s not entirely true. Abbott can negotiate a settlement in all these cases if he thought it would produce the best outcome for Texans. After federal judges found flaws with political maps drawn by the Legislature, for example, he convinced lawmakers to approve new maps that mirrored those drawn by the judges because he knew the original maps could not withstand judicial scrutiny.
Davis can use these lawsuits to her advantage. If Abbott defends these laws, she uses that to motivate her voters. If he settles the cases, she declares victory. Either way, Abbott’s role as attorney general makes his campaign more difficult.