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.
Nonetheless, the Democrats who responded to the rulings with partisan volleys on behalf of Wendy Davis were helped along by another piece of news on Friday: that Abbott had pulled out of a planned September 30th debate in Dallas, which was to be televised and live-streamed by WFAA and the Texas Tribune. The issue, according to the campaign, was that they could not come to an agreement with WFAA over certain details of the format. This was irregular on its face, and, in light of the newsworthy court rulings, did give the impression that Abbott was seeking to avoid the spotlight. Several hours later, the campaign explained that Abbott had already agreed to another debate on September 30th, hosted by different outlets, a development that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described as “a same day reversal of an earlier reversal.”
As Ross Ramsey points out, Abbott’s reluctance to debate makes sense, if you consider that he is heavily favored to win; the frontrunner has more to lose from making an error during a debate, and from doing anything that helps raise his opponent’s name ID. In theory, though, Abbott has still agreed to two debates with Davis, and his reservations were over the details. That’s unusual, and reinforces my impression that at some point last month, Abbott (or someone on the Abbott campaign) got spooked–despite the polls, the primary turnout differential between Republicans and Democrats in March, the size of Abbott’s war chest, and the past 20 years in Texas political history.
In any case, both candidates are still planning to meet for a debate in the Rio Grande Valley on September 19th. Assuming Davis agrees to Abbott’s change of plans–she may have a scheduling conflict, if the WFAA debate isn’t officially cancelled–there will be two general election debates between the gubernatorial candidates, which is two more than we saw in 2010 or 2006.