Daily Digest | April 28

Our Daily Digest is a lunchtime look at the stories we have our eyes on at the Capitol and beyond. Here’s what we are watching today:

The nation’s highest court is hearing arguments on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans today, in a case with major implications here in Texas. They are hearing from attorneys on both sides about whether same-sex couples should be allowed to be married. The court’s ruling would set a nationwide precedent, including here in Texas, one of 13 states where same-sex marriages are still illegal. A court challenge against Texas’s ban is currently held up in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, but those judges are expected to wait for the Supreme Court to rule.

The full Texas House chamber gave initial approval to its $4.9 billion tax cut plan today, voting 141-0 in favor of the bill. House Bill 31 would cut the the state sales tax, and is expected to save the average family of four $172 per year. The current state sales tax rate in the state is 6.25%, not including any extra taxes established by counties. That would fall to 5.95% under Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s proposal. It’s a drastically different approach than the Senate plan, which focuses on property tax cuts, and has become a major line in the sand between the two chambers this session. They’re also expected to debate House Bill 32, which cuts the margins tax paid by businesses. The Senate plan also includes a so-called franchise tax cut, an item Governor Abbott demanded by veto threat at the beginning of the session. Opponents of the tax cut plans say the money is better spent on things like roads or education funding.

In other news, leadership from both chambers met for the first time today to try to come to a compromise on the budget. The conference committee on House Bill 1 met for about 30 minutes today with the Legislative Budget Board as they try to work out their differences. And a House committee heard testimony today on plans to legalize medicinal marijuana in Texas. The proposal would legalize marijuana for treatment of chronic illnesses like PTSD and epilepsy, and would set up a licensing system for growers and dispensaries.

Tonight on “Capital Tonight,” Chuck Smith with Equality Texas will evaluate what the attorneys and justices had to say in the Supreme Court today. Plus, political strategists Harold Cook and Ted Delisi will give their takes on the week’s headlines at the State Capitol. Tune in to Time Warner Cable News at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

UT reacts to Supreme Court ruling in Michigan admissions policy case

The University of Texas is reviewing Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan ban to use race as a factor in college admissions.

In a 6-2 ruling, the justices said voters had the right to change their state constitution to prohibit public colleges and universities from considering race as part of the admissions process. The decision reverses a lower court ruling.

Meantime, the University of Texas at Austin is awaiting a ruling from a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel over its own admissions policy. The Supreme Court ruled on the Fisher v. University of Texas case last summer and sent it back down to the appeals court to enable a look at UT’s admissions policy under a more narrow set of standards.

Prospective student Abigail Fisher sued the university after being denied admission. Fisher, who is white, claimed she was the victim of racial discrimination because other, non-white students with lower test scores were admitted.

Reacting to Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the Michigan case, UT President Bill Powers said that based on its preliminary review, the university does not believe it has any effect on UT’s admissions policy or decisions.

Powers added:

“In today’s ruling, the court recognized that the Schuette case from Michigan was not ‘about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.’ The court also reaffirmed that in the case of Fisher versus the University of Texas, the court ‘did not disturb the principle that the consideration of race in admissions is permissible, provided that certain conditions are met.’ UT Austin’s admissions policy meets those conditions and we are awaiting a ruling from a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel. UT Austin uses race as one of many factors in our holistic review of applicants. Assembling a diverse student body is vital to the education of all students on campus and helps train the future leaders of our state and nation who will increasingly work in a diverse and global society.”

SCOTUS strikes down key component of the Voting Rights Act

In a landmark decision Tuesday, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme court overturned a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. In a 5-4 decision, the court struck down Section 4. That is the portion of the law that determines what parts of the country must have their voting laws precleared by the federal government.

Under the 1965 statute, nine states, including Texas, are required to get federal approval before making any changes to their voting laws. The law also applies to parts of seven other states, all of which have a history of infringing on minority voting rights. The statute was reauthorized in 2006.

The justices ruled that the government cannot enforce precelearance until Congress reevaluates voting data and updates its coverage formula. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5, itself.

“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

Several Texas laws hinge on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. The state’s voter ID legislation and its redistricting maps are stalled in federal court, after the government denied approval to the voting law changes.

Attorney General Greg Abbott weighed in on Twitter almost immediately, saying:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the rare move of reading the dissenting opinion from the bench. Ginsburg said, “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed.”


UT President Bill Powers ‘encouraged’ by SCOTUS ruling

Updated to add UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s statement

University of Texas president Bill Powers is applauding the Supreme Court’s decision to punt on the school’s use of race as an admissions factor. UT takes ethnicity into account as a part of its process to admit students who fall outside the system’s Top 10 percent rule. Powers said Monday the ruling will have no impact on the school’s current policy.

In a statement, Powers said:

“We’re encouraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case.

 We will continue to defend the University’s admission policy on remand in the lower court under the strict standards that the Court first articulated in the Bakke case, reaffirmed in the Grutter case, and laid out again today. We believe the University’s policy fully satisfies those standards.

We remain committed to assembling a student body at The University of Texas at Austin that provides the educational benefits of diversity on campus while respecting the rights of all students and acting within the constitutional framework established by the Court.

Today’s ruling will have no impact on admissions decisions we have already made or any immediate impact on our holistic admissions policies.”

UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also issued this statement:

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court believes there is compelling governmental interest in assuring diversity at our nation’s universities and encouraged that the Court upheld its ruling in the Grutter case, a landmark decision that gave public universities the ability to use race as one of multiple factors in determining admissions. 

“Today’s decision sends the case back to the lower court to take a closer look at UT Austin’s admissions policy to ensure it follows the standards laid out in Grutter. 

“We stand ready to assist in any way possible in defending UT Austin’s admissions policy on remand and will seek to maintain a policy that sustains a diverse student population and follows the guidelines the Court has provided us. We respect the Court’s decision and sincerely appreciate its careful deliberation on this important matter.”

SCOTUS sends UT affirmative action case back to lower court

The Supreme Court is declining to make a final ruling on race-based college admissions. In an opinion released today, the justices sent the case back to a lower court for another look, sidestepping the larger constitutional question.

At issue is whether the University of Texas can use race as one of the factors used in the admission process. Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. She claimed she was passed over in favor of less qualified students because she is white.

The 7-1 decision overturns a previous ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Fisher’s case. Justice Anthony Kennedy said Monday that a federal appeals court needs to further review the case.