March 22, 2014
by Patricia Kilday Hart

AUSTIN — After 42 years in the Texas House, Rep. Senfronia Thompson has earned a nickname — “Miz T.” — that evokes equal parts respect, affection and fear.

When she filed the Texas version of the Lilly Ledbetter Act last session, Miz T. called some old friends at the Texas Civil Justice League, a business group dedicated to fighting lawsuit abuse, and drafted them as allies.

Aided by the group’s credibility with conservatives — and the force of her own personality — she won bipartisan support and narrowly passed the measure, though her efforts eventually fell victim to Gov. Rick Perry’s veto pen.

Now, the issue has resurfaced in the Texas governor’s race, with Republican nominee Greg Abbott saying he would veto the bill if it is passed again.

His comments drew a rebuke from Democratic nominee Wendy Davis, who sponsored the bill in the Texas Senate.

The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor also jumped into the fray this week.

Incumbent David Dewhurst tweeted that Davis’ bill would have “unleashed torrents of lawsuits,” while his challenger, Houston Sen. Dan Patrick, said the government should stay out of the issue.

Some political observers, however, say conservatives may be having a knee-jerk reaction against the Lilly Ledbetter legislation simply because it was championed by President Barack Obama and Davis, a rising Texas Democratic star. The policy it advances is not that controversial, they argue.

“The vote (favoring the bill) can absolutely be defended on conservative grounds,” says TCJL general counsel George Christian, whose group helped win passage of Thompson’s bill.

Lisa Maatz, vice president for government relations for the American Association of University Women, called Dewhurst’s claim that the law would unleash a torrent of lawsuits “a tired argument.”

The predicted “torrent” has not occurred since the federal bill was signed into law in 2009, she said.

A supervisor at an Alabama Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant, Lilly Ledbetter sued for wage discrimination upon her retirement in 1998.

Her case was tossed because she didn’t file the lawsuit within 180 days of her first paycheck, although she didn’t know she was paid less than her male counterparts at the time.

In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to allow lawsuits in federal courts within 180 days of the last paycheck issued that reflects a discriminatory salary.

Since then, 42 states have adopted legislation to permit the lawsuits in state courts, as federal courts can be more costly and difficult to access.

Opponents in Texas argued that the legislation would create a burden for employers who would have to justify pay decisions made long ago.

In a letter to Perry seeking the veto, Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond wrote that the 180-day limit on lawsuits “protects employers from the burden of defending claims arising from employment decisions that are long past.”

Christian argued women already had the right to sue in federal court. The state version would permit those cases to be heard in state court.

“We are not going to enlarge in any way the ability to assert these claims,” he said. Instead, the state law would provide “a more efficient way to resolve those kinds of cases.”

Christian said conservatives should favor the bill because “it says you trust the state courts that you elect and the juries that get picked.” Opposing the bill amounts “shutting one courthouse door” while the federal courthouse door remains open, he said.

Given the opposition of business groups, Thompson said she sought Republican co-sponsors so the vote would not be split strictly on party lines. “This is a matter of equity – simple fairness,” she said.

Reps. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, and Jason Issac, R-Dripping Springs, agreed to co-sponsor. The bill passed the House, 70-65 on April 24.

In the Senate, however, the bill stalled, with the session’s end-of-May deadlines approaching. To win Republican votes, Davis agreed to an amendment that would limit claims to paychecks, not retirement benefits.

At Davis’ urging, Thompson visited the floor of the Texas Senate to round up votes.

As chairman of the House Local and Consent Calendar Committee, Thompson wields considerable influence on which bills reach the House floor.

As the Senate considered the bill in the waning days of the session, more than a few Republicans were interested in doing Miz T. a favor.

One of them, Thompson recalled, was Patrick.

“He walked over to me and said, ‘I’ll give you a vote to bring it up,’” she said. “I stood there and it passed.”

Patrick subsequently voted against the bill on final passage.

In Dallas this week, the Houston senator expressed opposition to lawsuits to enforce equal pay.

“I just believe in free markets, and I believe the market is the best place to do that,” Patrick said.

At a separate North Texas forum, Dewhurst declined to say whether he supported the measure, according to the Dallas Morning News.

However, the newspaper reported that Dewhurst said: “I was raised by a single mom who taught me from Day 1, equal pay for equal women.”

Davis’ campaign has made no secret it hopes to defeat Abbott by winning over suburban women voters. That strategy mirrors Obama’s outreach to women voters in recent weeks in campaign events on behalf of Democrats.

At a Florida Democratic fundraiser last week, Obama said “women with college degrees may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars less over the course of her career than a man at the same educational level, and that’s wrong.” He also appeared via satellite on the Ellen DeGeneres Show hammering the same theme.

According to the Associated Press, Democrats have good reason to focus on women voters in “off-year” elections.

Averaging exit poll results for House elections from 1976 through 2012, the AP reported, women are slightly less apt to vote Democratic in off-year elections than they are in presidential ones.

AAUW’s Maatz said polling in the Virginia governor’s race showed a 42 percent gender gap among women aged 18 to 30.

Those women favored Democratic winner Terry McAuliffe over Republican Ken Cuccinelli because of Cuccinelli’s positions on birth control and equal pay, Maatz said. McAuliffe made equal pay a key theme in his campaign.

Democratic Party spokesman Manny Garcia said Republican candidates would be mistaken to believe the issue appeals only to Democrats.

In two-income families, many women are paid less for the same work done by male co-workers.

“That’s not good for Texas families,” he said. “This is an economic fairness problem for many families.”

Regardless of who’s elected governor and lieutenant governor, Christian predicted Thompson would fight for passage of the bill again.

“I expect Miz T. will refile this bill,” he said. “I’d be amazed if she didn’t.”

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