Analysis: A bad day for Planned Parenthood, a good one for Ken Paxton

The question posed to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was whether Planned Parenthood can continue to be one of the beneficiaries of the State Employee Charitable Campaign. REUTERS/Bill Clark

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Ken Paxton is one lucky duck. The Texas attorney general was asked the kind of friendly, easy question that allowed him to twist the nose of an organization he doesn’t like under cover of state law.

It’s not a secret that Paxton is opposed to abortion. That opposition has long been a centerpiece of his campaigns as he rose from the Texas House to the Senate to his current position. It’s hard to imagine that he wants Planned Parenthood to have more resources.

And given a chance to say that a new state law creates an obstacle to some of that organization’s funding, he grabbed it.

The question posed to the state’s top lawyer was whether Planned Parenthood can continue to be one of the beneficiaries of the State Employee Charitable Campaign. State workers who sign up for the voluntary campaign give a little bit of money from each paycheck to the program, which then distributes the money to charities chosen from an approved list.

Planned Parenthood is one of those.

But there’s a new law — this is all detailed by The Texas Tribune’s Emma Platoff — that prohibits state and local governments in Texas from doing business with abortion providers or their affiliates. And because the employee campaign uses state resources and employee time, Paxton said the law prevents groups like Planned Parenthood from benefiting from it.

Paxton didn’t say state employees can’t give to Planned Parenthood — just that they can’t use the charitable campaign to do it. And it’s not an official ruling. The head of the employee campaign — an aide to Gov. Greg Abbott, Paxton’s predecessor in the AG’s office — asked for Paxton’s advice. Paxton replied with a “letter opinion,” a nonbinding position on the law in question.

This particular question let Paxton weigh in from an official perch without ever saying a word about that organization or about whether state employees can give money to it. Instead, he simply concluded that abortion providers are — by state law — out of bounds. He did it in just three sentences, saying the law prevents a “taxpayer resource transaction” with abortion providers and their affiliates, that having state employees approve those providers is that kind of transaction, and that the new law prohibits including them in the campaign.

That’s a political win for the guy, and not very hard work. It was, after all, a friendly question.

But even if that’s what the law says, Paxton wasn’t asked for his nonbinding legal opinion about the law itself — and whether it’s legal to adjust state law to prevent state workers from using their own money, collected through a payroll deduction, to support the nonprofit organizations of their choosing.

Attorneys general are the first line of defense when a state law is challenged, and it would be interesting to see whether and how Paxton defended the new law against a challenge on First Amendment grounds.

He said the law as written blocks the State Employee Charitable Campaign, which uses state resources and all of that, from giving money to abortion providers. But does he think the state should be able to get between the contributors and the charities they favor? Should legislators be allowed to micromanage the charitable preferences of state employees?

That’s where Paxton was lucky. He got asked a question he wanted to answer, one that allowed him both to play lawyer and get a little publicity for a position central to his politics. It’s not as if his regard for the law put him in a tight spot. This particular question and answer pleased his friends and aggravated his foes.

Planned Parenthood was incensed. The liberal Texas Progress Council was peeved. The Texas Freedom Network said he was misreading the law.

Nothing better than having the enemies of your friends shouting and calling you names. That’s good politics.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood and the Texas Freedom Network have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.