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By Meghan Ashford-Grooms August 21, 2011

Did Comptroller Susan Combs flip-flop on abortion?

Three years before the next Texas lieutenant governor’s election, one possible Republican candidate, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, accused another, Comptroller Susan Combs, of changing her position on abortion.

In an Aug. 2 letter to Combs seeking clarification of her stance, Staples says recent comments by Combs’ spokesman run "completely contrary" to her "known pro-choice position."

Recent comments? Cody McGregor, campaign manager for Staples, pointed us to a July 5 column in the Houston Chronicle that quotes Combs’ political consultant Reggie Bashur as saying that Combs "wants Roe v. Wade overturned" and is against abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when a woman’s life is in jeopardy.

Has Combs flip-flopped on abortion?

Some background: Combs, Staples and others who may vie for lieutenant governor in 2014 are drawing attention now because the incumbent, David Dewhurst, recently joined the 2012 field of candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison. That means Dewhurst hopes he won’t be seeking another term as lieutenant governor two years later. Staples has said that he will compete for the post overseeing the Texas Senate as long as Dewhurst doesn’t. And Combs is considering jumping in, according to Bashur.

Combs, in her second term as comptroller, previously served as state agriculture commissioner and in the Texas House, where she represented an Austin-area district.

We first looked into Combs’ past position on abortion.

In his letter, Staples says Combs’ "pro-choice position is well documented" through "quoted comments in several news reports."

Reporter Peggy Fikac’s July 5 Chronicle column cites two earlier news articles. The first is a May 1995 Austin American-Statesman story in which Combs, then a House member, discussed her belief that government had grown too large and powerful. "We are so casual about government intrusion in our lives," Combs is quoted as saying. "I'm pro-choice for the same reason.''

The second news article cited in the Chronicle column was an Associated Press story from November 2003, when Combs was agriculture commissioner. "Combs supports a woman's right to choose, with exceptions," the story says. "She opposes ‘partial-birth’ abortions and third-trimester abortions and favors parental notification for minors seeking abortions."

In an interview, Brooke Botello, communications director for the comptroller's office, told us that the AP story accurately covered Combs' earlier position on abortion. Botello also told us that Combs' position had not shifted significantly during her years as a House member and agriculture commissioner.

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Staples’ campaign also sent us a February 2011 Texas Tribune story that kicks off by asking whether it’s possible for a pro-choice candidate to win a "high-profile" statewide Republican primary in Texas. "Susan Combs might try," it says. The article describes Combs’ position as "anti-abortion but pro-choice" and says that Combs "has said Roe v. Wade should stand."

That Supreme Court ruling, issued Jan. 22, 1973, struck down a Texas law prohibiting nearly all abortions and said states could not prohibit a woman from having an abortion before viability, the time at which a fetus can survive outside a woman's body. It noted that viability "is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks)" of pregnancy "but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks."

After fetal viability, the court said, states could limit abortions provided that their policies met certain requirements, including an exception to protect the life of the woman. Since then, other Supreme Court rulings have affirmed states' rights to impose further restrictions.

The first sign we found of a possible shift by Combs was in a May 22 Houston Chronicle article on the 2011 regular legislative session. It reported that at Combs’ request, state Rep. Jim Landtroop, R-Plainview, added an amendment to a budget-related bill that would have prohibited businesses from claiming money spent on elective abortions through its employee health plans as an exemption from the state’s franchise tax. When calculating how much they owe under the tax, qualifying companies are permitted to deduct from total revenue certain costs, including health care benefits.

The article quotes Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, as saying that Combs sought the change "to remove what she would consider public subsidies of insurance policies covering abortions. ... In her view, that is subsidizing abortion because that is public money."

Botello confirmed that Combs had asked Landtroop to propose the amendment. The overall proposal died, though, and the Combs-backed amendment did not become law.

About six weeks later, in July, Bashur’s statement that Combs is now against most abortions appeared in the Chronicle column. On Aug. 2, Staples shared his letter to Combs with news organizations, and the next day, Combs was interviewed by the Tribune, which reported that she had "switched her position on abortion rights, from pro-choice to pro-life."

In the interview, Tribune reporter Ross Ramsey says: "Let’s talk about choice. I understand that your position on this has changed."

Combs replies: "Uh huh." She continues: "Twenty years ago, I was pro-choice … because I had concerns about the role of government." She then says that she changed her mind after "looking at studies and data and reading books" and concluding that abortion is being used as "birth control."

"It is stunning to me that we are at the point in this country where in 2011, you have incredibly high numbers of women choosing to abort rather than have a baby or to have avoided the problem in the first place," she told the Tribune. "So I am unequivocal about it. I was wrong, and it's 20 years later, and I feel very strongly about it."

Combs’ newly articulated position — in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade and against abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when a woman’s life is threatened — mirrors Staples’. And Austin consultant Wayne Hamilton, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, told us that Texas candidates have generally been considered pro-life if they oppose abortion except in those three cases, though some candidates rule out exceptions.

So, how does Combs’ acknowledged shift rate on the Flip-O-Meter?

Previously, Combs was in favor of allowing abortions in most cases, excluding those in the final trimester of pregnancy. Now, she opposes abortion in most cases, with the exception of those involving rape, incest or when a woman’s life is threatened. Full Flop.

Our Sources

Todd Staples, letter to Susan Combs, sent to media Aug. 2, 2011

Email from Cody McGregor, campaign manager for Todd Staples, Aug. 2, 2011

Peggy Fikac column, Houston Chronicle, "The guys versus Combs," July 5, 2011

Interview with Reggie Bashur, political consultant for Susan Combs, Aug. 5, 2011

Texas Tribune, interview with Todd Staples, May 16, 2011

Austin American-Statesman, "Combs pours energy into law of the land," May 14, 1995

Associated Press, "Agriculture commissioner eyes move up political ladder," Nov. 12, 2003

Interview with Brooke Botello, communications director for state comptroller’s office, Aug. 8, 2011

Texas Tribune, "Can a pro-choice Republican win in Texas?" Feb. 7, 2011

PolitiFact Texas, "Rick Perry says there have been 50 million abortions since Roe," Feb. 1, 2011

Houston Chronicle, "Tax-break limits for abortion costs draw fire," May 22, 2011

Texas Tribune, "Combs switches, says she opposes abortion," Aug. 3, 2011

Texas Tribune, "Susan Combs: The TT interview," Aug. 4, 2011

Email interview with Wayne Hamilton, former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, Aug. 11, 2011

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