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After Spending Millions Suing Obama 39 Times, Has Texas Seen a Return on Investment?

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has taken up his predecessor's crusade against the federal government, spending nearly a quarter of a million dollars suing the federal government in six new legal challenges since taking office in January.

By Lauren McGaughy

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has taken up his predecessor's crusade against the federal government, spending nearly a quarter of a million dollars suing the federal government in six new legal challenges since taking office in January.

Elected in a tea party wave that swept several other social conservative Republicans into office, Paxton waited just two months before he sued the Obama administration for the first time over its policy of extending spousal benefits to married same-sex couples.

Five more lawsuits soon followed.

Since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, Paxton and former Attorney General Greg Abbott, now governor, have spent more than $5 million in taxpayer money suing the federal government 39 times, according to information provided by the attorney general's office.

Texas' Republican leaders long have defended the lawsuits as a means to push back against what they characterize as an overzealous federal government encroaching on states' rights.

"The lawsuits we've launched against the Obama Administration seek to protect Texans from massive and unlawful federal power grabs that would often impose costly new burdens on families and businesses. Just to put things in perspective, our Obamacare lawsuit alone concerns a $120 million annual new tax on the state," Paxton spokesperson Cynthia Meyer said, referring to the state's most recent challenge to the federal Affordable Care Act. "That's why the Paxton administration has launched six lawsuits against the Obama administration thus far. It's our duty to defend the rule of law against an aggressive federal government."

Paxton and Abbott's efforts to fight the federal government have been lauded by many conservative politicians and policymakers in the Republican-dominated state, including leaders at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the capital's premier conservative think-tank. Robert Henneke, head of the foundation's Center for the American Future, last month called Paxton's most recent suit "an assertion of Tenth Amendment sovereignty against an oppressive regime aimed at harming middle class families."

'Waste of money'

Critics, however, say the lawsuits represent little more than conservative politics run amok.

"It's a significant waste of money and resources that can easily be spent far better protecting our air and water from polluters," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen Texas. "Certainly, it can be used for consumer protection or going after a variety of corporate criminals that have defrauded the state."

More than half of the state's legal challenges, 21 out of 39, have been aimed at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite political punching bag of Republicans.

In its most recent suit against the agency, the state already has spent more than $82,000 in one month fighting the federal government's plan to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

The challenge to the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, and the dozen other suits that remain pending against the federal government, was the subject of a speech Paxton gave Thursday at a TPPF conference on energy and climate change.

"The fight against EPA is not just about growing the economy, protecting private property, or even saving jobs," Paxton said. "It's about standing up for the Constitution and the rule of law. It's about taking power out of the hands of un-elected bureaucrats and returning it to the people."

He later told reporters, "We think we're going to win this case."

Mixed success

If so, it would be Texas' eighth victory against the federal government since Obama took office. The state already has eight losses, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of the cases. The office of the attorney general only counts five as losses, however, and considers the other three -- all challenges against a series of EPA rules promulgated in 2010 -- as "mixed outcomes." They count mixed outcomes when a court ruling or compromise resulted in the EPA partly acquiescing to the state's wishes, but not wholly to its demands.

While the state has gone after the EPA more than any other agency, the lawsuits with the biggest price tags have involved voting issues.

Texas' has spent $1.6 million on its bid to force the federal government to accept its voter ID law, which was called discriminatory by a panel of federal appeals judges in August. The state has appealed, and asked for a rehearing before the full court.

Nearly $1 million has been spent to force the Obama administration to accept the state's 2011 redistricting maps for congressional and legislative seats. That case ultimately was withdrawn by the state in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain states to get the federal government to sign off on changes to voting maps.

Other costs

The $5 million tab does not include all money the state has spent defending its laws against challenges from the federal government. Paxton and Abbott, for example, have spent more than $8 million defending voter ID and redistricting against charges from the administration that they are a thinly veiled attempts to disenfranchise minority voters in a state with an increasingly diverse population.

Paxton's first challenge against the feds over gay marriage was settled in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right for same-sex couples to wed. He dropped the state's lawsuit the next month. Outcomes in his five other cases, and eight remaining from his predecessor, remain pending.

(c)2015 the Houston Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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