Today marked a turning point in the case of Hannah Overton, the Corpus Christi mother of five who has fought for eight years to prove her innocence. This morning, in a decisive 7-2 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her capital murder conviction. The court stopped short of declaring Hannah actually innocent, but cited “the fundamental unfairness of her trial,” pointing to the ineffective counsel she received when she was prosecuted in 2007.
In 2011, faced with a projected budget shortfall of about $27bn for the 2012-13 biennium, the Legislature passed a budget that amounted to about $5bn in cuts to public education--that is, $5bn less than the state would have appropriated, in theory, if not for the projected shortfall. Public schools are popular, more or less, and the political fallout would have been worse if not for the fact that the projected shortfall provided some cover. Education is Texas's single largest area of state spending. If you have to cut make serious cuts to the budget, there's almost no way for schools to escape unscathed, and that was the way most Republicans described the cuts at the time: tough, but necessary, and manageable.
Democrats, however, insisted that the cuts would be devastating, and that they weren't really necessary. On the latter point, Democrats were proven correct in 2013, when the comptroller reported an $8.8bn surplus for 2014-15. $8.8bn > $5bn; let's all hope that future generations of Texans are able to understand that piece of math as well as we are. And on August 28th, Judge Dietz's ruling on the school finance lawsuits gave them the upper hand on the first point. Republicans can argue about what the optimal level of school funding is, or might be, if greater efficiencies were realized, and attorney-general Greg Abbott has vowed to fight the ruling, but as it stands, the judge said that Texas's school funding is "inadequate", among other things.
In other words, the chickens may be coming home to roost on this, or at least the Democrats hope they are. Over the past few weeks Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and Mike Collier--the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and comptroller, respectively--have been hitting their Republican opponents for having supported the school cuts. Broadly speaking, all three are criticizing the 2011 cuts. But in my assessment, Davis's case is weak, Collier's is okaaaay, and Van de Putte's is good, but in a slightly poignant way. I'll explain why, after the jump.
I was interested by Eric Bearse's piece in the Quorum Report yesterday concerning Wendy Davis and abortion. Bearse wrote, among other things:
"The reason Wendy Davis has never recovered politically from her abortion filibuster is she fought on turf where she couldn't win. Outside of San Francisco and New York, most Americans oppose late-term abortions. In winning the public relations battle at the time -- becoming the national darling of the leftist intelligentsia -- she set herself up to lose the political war."
I don't take issue with the fact that most Americans oppose late-term abortions. But that wasn't what the debate in the Senate wasn't about. It was about whether one woman could stand up to the Senate bullies.
Why is Greg Abbott still raising money for his race for governor when he already has enough stashed away to win two or three races? Abbott is on his way to assembling the largest campaign war chest in Texas history, but it's not because he's worried about Wendy Davis.
Late on Friday, a bombshell dropped on the 2014 gubernatorial race. Advance copies of Wendy Davis' autobiography, Forgetting To Be Afraid, made their way into the hands of journalists, and the book's big revelation—that Davis had two abortions in the nineties for medical reasons—became a major part of the campaign.
The past few days have brought several bits of bad news for Greg Abbott. Two are court rulings that put him in a slightly awkward position. One is his own decision and ratchets up the potential fallout from the court rulings. First, the court rulings. On Thursday State District Judge John Dietz ruled that Texas's current system of school finance is unconstitutional any which way you look at it: that it imposes a de facto statewide property tax, that it doesn't provide adequate funding to accomplish the general diffusion of knowledge, and that it doesn't provide equitable access to the funding that is available. (The Tribune has links to Dietz' final judgment and findings of fact, as PDFs.) Then on Friday, US District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that a key provision of last year's omnibus abortion bill--the requirement that facilities providing abortions must meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical center--amounts to an unconstitutional (and "brutally effective") restriction on access to legal abortion for women across Texas.
These rulings are awkward for Abbott for obvious reasons. Although he isn't the most ardent defender of Texas's luridly complicated school finance system or its lurch to the right on social issues, he is, as the attorney general, the person constitutionally deputized to defend state laws in court, a point that he tacitly conceded over the weekend by issuing a statement saying that the state would appeal Dietz's ruling, and filing a motion asking the 5th Circuit for permission to enforce the abortion law despite Yeakel's ruling. On the school finance front, especially, a certain lack of enthusiasm could be discerned. The state would, per the statement, defend the school finance law "just as it defends all laws enacted by the Legislature"--a comment that, in addition to conveying no particular animation on the attorney general's part, clearly points to the Lege as the culprit in the whole scenario.
It is all but certain that Attorney General Greg Abbott will appeal Judge Dietz’s school finance ruling. It's classic Abbott. He has to win, even if he realizes that he is going to lose.