Planned Parenthood likely to be excluded from state employees' annual charity drive, under new Texas law

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The waiting room at Planned Parenthood of Gulf Coast's ambulatory surgical center in Houston Friday, August 2, 2013. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Planned Parenthood will likely be excluded from state employees’ annual drive to raise money for charity, the result of a new state law that prohibits governments from doing business with abortion providers or their affiliates.

Created in 1993, the State Employee Charitable Campaign allows state employees and retirees to directly contribute portions of their paycheck to any of about 1,100 pre-approved nonprofit organizations during an annual drive in September and October. The campaign facilitates donations to groups including the United Way, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Foundation, the Texas Homeless Network and a number of religious entities.

In 2018, the program raised $7.1 million from about 33,000 employees; over its entire duration, it has raised more than $182 million. Planned Parenthood has for years been included on the list of nonprofit organizations, which have to be vetted and re-approved annually. Campaign organizers could not immediately say how much money has been donated to Planned Parenthood through the program.

Senate Bill 22, authored by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, forbids local and state governments from entering into “taxpayer resource transactions” with abortion providers or affiliates. After the law went into effect in September, Greg Davidson, an employee of Gov. Greg Abbott who chairs the campaign’s state policy committee, asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, for a legal opinion on whether the effort to organize state employee contributions falls under the new law.

Paxton said it does. In a non-binding legal opinion last week, he noted that state employee time as well as state resources, such as the payroll system and electronic funds transfer system, go into coordinating the campaign.

“The Policy Committee's approval of abortion providers or affiliates as charitable organizations eligible to participate in the Campaign constitutes a taxpayer resource transaction,” Paxton wrote in a signed opinion dated Jan. 2. The law “thus prohibits the Policy Committee from approving abortion providers or affiliates as eligible charitable organizations for the Campaign.”

Davidson did not return requests for comment on Friday about how the campaign will respond to Paxton’s opinion.

Planned Parenthood criticized the opinion as an effort to “score more political points among extremists.”

“Attorney General Ken Paxton is forcing his anti-choice, political agenda on state employees by attempting to block their ability to donate to Planned Parenthood,” said Alyah Khan, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes.

State employees are not prevented from donating to Planned Parenthood outside the annual program. But if employees elect to participate in the campaign, the money is automatically deducted from their paychecks, which organizers say is a more effective fundraising strategy.

Liberal groups this week condemned Paxton’s opinion, calling it an erosion of state employees’ free speech rights.

“The state is limiting state employee’s First Amendment options in order to align with conservatives’ larger anti-abortion extremist agenda,” said Sam Robles, advocacy director of the liberal group Progress Texas.

Campbell did not immediately return a request for comment on the recent attorney general opinion. Her bill, which was tagged as a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, targeted a $1-a-year lease of an Austin-owned building to Planned Parenthood, which critics called a sweetheart deal.

Abortion rights advocates warned from the beginning that the bill would have far-reaching implications, imperiling funding for health programs or educational campaigns. The city of Austin has worked to resist the bill, setting aside $150,000 for incidental expenses for women seeking abortions.