AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott would not sign a measure to make it easier for women to bring pay discrimination lawsuits in state court, a spokesman said Wednesday in an apparent effort to get past an issue that has dogged the campaign for weeks.
Abbott, the state's current attorney general, previously refused to take a position on the proposed law known as the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which extends the statute of limitations for bringing lawsuits when an employer paid a person less because of their gender, race or religion.
"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," campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Hirsch stopped short of saying Abbott would have vetoed the act, as current Gov. Rick Perry did last year when Abbott's Democratic rival in the governor's race, Fort Worth state Sen. Wendy Davis, shepherded a state version through the Republican-controlled Legislature. The statement from Abbott's office would allow him the option of using another tactic, which gives a Texas governor the right to allow a bill to become law 10 days after receiving it.
Texas Democrats see the Davis bid for governor this year as their best chance to make a comeback in a state where no Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994. Her underdog campaign depends on wooing swing voters such as middle-class women. Davis gained national prominence last year when she staged a filibuster against a Republican-backed bill to tighten restrictions on abortion.
Abbott first dodged a question on whether he would support the pay discrimination law in a televised interview March 9, but the issue gained additional traction this week after comments by the female director of the Republican Party of Texas.
"Men are better negotiators, and I would encourage women to, instead of pursuing the courts for action, to become better negotiators," Beth Cubriel told Austin's YNN television. Davis campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Acuna called Cubriel's comments "offensive."
It was not the first time that Abbott's supporters have complicated his message. Abbott had to distance himself from a recent comment by rock musician Ted Nugent, who described President Obama as a "subhuman mongrel."
Abbott issued the statement on wage discrimination Wednesday, after the San Antonio Express-News reported that an analysis of current salary data from the state attorney general's office shows that women make $16,000 less on average than men. Of Abbott's 722 assistant attorneys general, the average salary for 343 men is $79,464, but the average salary for 379 women is $73,649, the paper said.
Lauren Bean, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the men had, on average, been licensed two years longer and had an additional year of service with the agency. She denied there was any discrimination at the agency.
"The Texas Attorney General's Office employs roughly 1,800 more women than men; the number of female lawyers at the attorney general's office has increased by 23 percent under General Abbott's leadership; and approximately 40 percent of executive-level employees and division chiefs are women," she said.
Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas said Davis would fight for economic fairness.
"On the day that Texans discover Greg Abbott pays women less than men in his office, he announces he would veto equal pay legislation that would help his employees address this discrimination. Texans are tired of business as usual," he said. Abbott's spokesman, though, was careful not to use the word veto.
Women are guaranteed equal pay under state law and may sue an employer in state or federal court if she believes she is the victim of discrimination. But Joseph Fishkin, an expert in anti-discrimination law at the University of Texas Law School, said that women are limited when they can sue in state court because Perry vetoed the Ledbetter Act.
"The question is whether you have to sue within a short period, generally 180 days after the discrimination takes place, or can you sue much later if that's when you find out that you are being paid less," he said. In these cases, the discrimination takes place when the salary was originally set, but the woman may not learn about the discrimination for years.
The Supreme Court ruled that under the Equal Pay Act victims only had limited time to file a lawsuit. That prompted Congress to pass the federal Ledbetter Act to allow victims to sue when they discover the discrimination, Fishkin said.
Forty-two states have passed versions of the Ledbetter act to extend the statute of limitations for state lawsuits.