Texas Democrats see winning issue in equal pay

AUSTIN -- The afternoon luncheon of Capital Area Democratic Women buzzed with talk of the Republican candidate for governor, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

After news broke Wednesday that Abbott would veto a bill extending the time limit for filing wage discrimination claims in state court, the consensus among the officeholders and activists present for the Thursday afternoon event was that the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful has a winning issue.

I think this is going to be one of the main driving forces that get Democratic women out and voting like we saw in 2008, but also gets moderate or inconsistent voters to vote as well, said Katie Naranjo, president of Capital Area Democratic Women. The fact that Republican women are texting me saying that they're going to vote for Wendy Davis because of this issue, I think is going to be a key problem for Greg Abbott in November.

This is clearly an issue that's going to resonate with women voters across the spectrum, said state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin). So I believe that this is an issue that we get fully behind, make sure people understand what's going on that there is a clear difference between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis on this issue.

Sponsored by state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) in 2013, House Bill 950 -- the Texas Equal Pay or Lilly Ledbetter Act -- would effectively bring state law in line with the federal Lilly Ledbetter Act signed by President Obama 2009. The federal law increases the statute of limitations for filing a wage discrimination claim to 180 days after the discrimination was discovered from 180 after the discrimination occurred. The Texas Supreme Court has held that the federal law only applies to lawsuits filed in federal court, while state court continues to use the statute of 180 days after the discrimination occurred.

The Texas bill was passed by both chambers of the 83rd Texas Legislature with bipartisan support. The vote in the Texas House of Representatives was 78 to 61, with two members present and not voting. The vote in the Texas Senate was 21 to ten, with state Sens. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and Joan Huffman (R-Houston) the only female state senators voting against the bill. It was vetoed in June by Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas' commitment to smart regulations and fair courts is a large part of why we continue to lead the nation in job creation, Perry wrote in the accompanying veto statement. House Bill 950 duplicates federal law, which already allows employees who feel they have been discriminated against through compensation to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond was one of several business representatives who testified against HB 950 in 2013. After the legislation was passed, Hammond urged Perry to veto the bill over fears that businesses could be forced into court over allegations of impropriety that occurred in the distant past. Hammond told KVUE Thursday that those who opposed the law in 2013 and continue to do so have been inaccurately labeled as being against equal pay for women.

That is simply not the truth. I think that everybody out there supports equal pay in today's world. They're just concerned about unlimited liability, said Hammond. While acknowledging that it may be more difficult to file a discrimination lawsuit in a federal court than a state court, Hammond maintains that it is unfair to expose businesses to lawsuits over accusations that may be difficult to disprove due to the passage of time.

There may not be any data or person to support the reasons why that decision was made at the time. Therefore a business in the first place would be put in a position where they have no defense whatsoever, said Hammond. It would simply be the word of the employee versus no defense.

If there's not discrimination against women's pay, then there won't be lawsuits. I think that's the kind of the common-sense answer to that, countered Howard, who says contends that the 180 days is insufficient for discrimination that may take much longer to discover.

The issue has also made its way into the Republican runoff for the lieutenant governor nomination. The Dallas Morning News reported Thursday state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) suggested the state should not enforce equal pay laws. After meeting with Republican women in Arlington, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) sat down for an interview with Dallas/Fort Worth sister station WFAA. Asked whether he would block a similar bill should one be submitted next session, he indicated he would not stand in its way.

If it has the votes to go ahead and get out of committee, then we'll bring it to the floor, Dewhurst replied.

Yet even if such a bill were filed and approved by the Texas Legislature, the decision to sign or veto it would again be up to the next governor. While Davis has promised to sign such a bill immediately, an Abbott administration would likely put proponents of stronger equal pay protections in a position of seeking an alternative route that would satisfy the concerns of business interests. For now, middle ground seems hard to find.

Regardless of who's governor, this will be an issue. And certainly, as we always do, we'll be happy to work with the authors and see if we can reach an agreement, said Hammond, who told KVUE that businesses were not approached for input on the bill on 2013. We think the 180 days is fair and appropriate. If they want to look at a different timeline than the current law, we would be happy to talk to them about that.

We can certainly look at other options, but the fact is that Wendy had a bill that was mirroring what was going on federally, Howard said. There's no reason that we should have anything that's any less than what we've got in terms of protection at the federal level.


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