The Austin Chronicle

Equal Pay: Abbott Breaks Silence

Davis campaign asks if attorney general would have vetoed fair pay act

By Richard Whittaker, March 21, 2014, News

Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis has a simple question for her GOP challenger for the governor's mansion, Attorney General Greg Abbott: Do you believe it's OK to pay a woman less than a man for the same job? His answer may leave critics underwhelmed.

On June 14, 2013, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed House Bill 950, the Texas version of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, a bipartisan bill enhancing workplace protection against pay discrimination. Davis has put a question to her opponent: Would he have followed Perry's lead and vetoed the bill? Davis said, "Hardworking Texans deserve to know if he believes in this simple principle: A full day's work is worth a full day's pay no matter what your gender. With more families than ever before relying on two incomes, they can't afford to have one of their paychecks unfairly reduced just because one of them is a woman."

In response to this "put up or shut up" challenge, Abbott's campaign stayed mute for two weeks. The attorney general has regularly shielded himself from tough policy questions by saying that, as the state's top lawyer, it would be inappropriate for him to comment on any measure currently or recently in litigation. That includes this bill, which he successfully challenged all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. However, this has left ample opportunity for his proxies to make cringe-worthy statements on his behalf. Republican Party of Texas Executive Director Beth Cub­riel told Time Warner Cable News that a disparity exists because "men are better negotiators," while Red State Women PAC Executive Director Cari Christ­man told WFAA that "women are extremely busy" and don't have time to file lawsuits.

Finally, on March 19, Abbott gave a non-answer to the Associated Press. "Because wage discrimination is already against the law and because legal avenues already exist for victims of discrimination, Greg Abbott would have not signed this law," said his spokesman.

It was an awkward response after the San Antonio Express-News did some number-crunching and found that Abbott's own office isn't exactly a bastion of pay parity. The average male assistant attorney general pulls in $79,464 per annum, while their female colleagues earn about $6,000 less. That follows a national pattern. According to research by the National Women's Law Center, on average women only make 77 cents for every dollar paid to men in comparable jobs – dropping to 64 cents for African-American women, and 55 cents for Latinas. However, the Davis campaign noted that the need for such legislation is far greater in Texas than most other states: While women are paid 82 cents on the dollar, that drops to 59 cents for African-American women, and only 45 cents for Hispanic women.

There is existing federal legislation. In 2009, President Barack Obama made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the first law he signed. An amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it made major changes to the statute of limitations on challenging discriminatory pay. Although it is widely regarded as a bill relating to women's employment, it actually covers all employees suffering pay discrimination, whether based on gender, race, religion, national origin, disability, or age. In his veto statement for HB 950, Perry argued that it was redundant because it "duplicates federal law." However, Texas judges do not see it that way, and the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the federal law does not apply to pay discrimination suits brought under state statutes.

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