federal law

Student Government discusses the inability to inform students about the B-On-Time Loan at the general meeting Tuesday. According to federal law, SG is too closely affiliated with the University to recommend private loans.

Photo Credit: Fabian Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Student Government’s initial decision to inform students about the B-On-Time loan has been halted because, according to federal law, the organization is too closely affiliated to the University.

The B-On-Time program is a no-interest state loan that is fully forgiven if a student graduates on time with a GPA of at least 3.0. Currently, the University is not allowed to recommend private loans to students, including state loans, unless the student asks about the specific program.

In early April, SG Chief Justice Philip Wiseman and other SG members planned to raise awareness about the B-On-Time loan to make up for the University’s inability to recommend private loans. The SG members were later informed by Tom Melecki, student financial services director, that they would be unable to tell students about the loan because of the federal restriction.

“Under the federal law, SG is too closely affiliated as an institution-affiliated organization, and, as a result, any kinds of prohibitions that are placed on the University, by extension, are also placed on SG,” Wiseman said.

The University does have the option to promote these loans if they advertise a list of approved lenders to students, though the University does not use this method because it cannot guarantee the trustworthiness of independent lenders, according to Melecki.

According to Wiseman, a resolution in support of the bill, H.R. 3371, would provide students an opportunity to bring up the B-On-Time loans without SG recommending them.

The bill would amend the Higher Education Act so state institutions could provide information about state loans and allow universities to renew students’ loans without them having to reapply.

Wiseman said SG would begin a yearlong, strategic push to work with state representatives and raise awareness about the bill.

“We’re going to set the groundwork for something that could develop into a much larger, statewide campaign,” Wiseman said. “This is a minor setback at most.”

According to Melecki, there are currently more than 100 students on the waitlist for the B-On-Time program, and the University is obligated to reward the loan to students
who have already been in the program before giving it to students on the waitlist.

Melecki said students can also be informed about the program through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which sends out an email to students who need to renew their loan.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is a state agency that works with the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan program to promote the B-On-Time loan. Kristina Tirloni, Texas Guaranteed Student Loan program spokeswoman, said the agency may freely promote the B-On-Time loan, especially to high school students.

“It’s a great program because there’s a financial aid component, and there’s also the component of trying to advocate for the student to not only graduate on time, but with a pretty high GPA,” Tirloni said. “The benefit on the back end of the program is great for students.”

Horns Up: Committee says Hall may have broken the law

According to a 176-page draft report obtained by the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, UT System Regent Wallace Hall likely committed impeachable offenses — including abusing his power, leaking confidential information in an attempt to silence critics in the state legislature and attempting to coerce UT administrators to alter their testimony in committee hearings — and may even have violated state and federal law. The report was drafted by a House committee tasked with investigating Hall and his potential misconduct. While we can’t say that the report’s accusations come as much of  a surprise, Horns Up to the possibility that the Wallace Hall saga may soon come to an end, and the University administrators can refocus on actual student related issues. That way, we’ll finally be able to focus on something more worthwhile.


Horns Down: EEOC complaints on the rise in Texas

According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, Texas’ number of workplace discrimination and harassment complaints has increased in recent months. The Frisco Enterprise reported that the commission received 9,068 harassment and discrimination charges last year alone, which is an increase of 2 percent from the year before. While Texas’ incident reports increased, nationally, the number of harassments decreased by 6 percent last year. According to the commission, any unwelcome action based on factors including race, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability can be classified as harassment in the workplace. Horns Down to this unfortunate increase; it’s definitely not a positive outcome of the Texas workforce.

Legislature gives higher education board direction on loans

Financial aid counselors might be able to advise students to take out a no interest, forgiveable loan in the future, which is currently forbidden under federal law. 

The Legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission, a body charged with assessing the need of state agencies, directed the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to seek a revision to federal law that prevents schools from advertising the state's B-On-Time Loan Program, according to a report released by the commission in July. Financial aid officials are currently only allowed to direct students to federal financial aid programs, not state.

The B-On-Time Loan program grants students a no interest loan that is forgiveable if they graduate in four years with at least a 3.0 GPA. Five percent of a student's tuition is used to fund the program, and the higher education board's preliminary estimates indicate the program will have $84 million in awards for fiscal years 2014-2015. UT-Austin students typically take out $7,400 per year under the program. 

One of the program's biggest problems is low student participation rates, according to a report by the Sunset Advisory Commission. At UT-San Antonio, for instance, $100,000 went unused in 2011 because students did not know about it, officials claim.

“We’re not allowed to advertise these funds due to restrictions on alternative lending,” said Lisa Blazer, associate vice president for UT-San Antonio’s Financial Aid and Enrollment Services. “They have to request it from us. That will explain why a small amount will not be spent.”

Follow Jody Serrano on Twitter @jodyserrano. 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Concluding two days of intense debate, the Supreme Court signaled Wednesday it could give a boost to same-sex marriage by striking down the federal law that denies legally married gay spouses a wide range of benefits offered to other couples.

As the court wrapped up its remarkable arguments over gay marriage in America, a majority of the justices indicated they will invalidate part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act — if they can get past procedural problems similar to those that appeared to mark Tuesday’s case over California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Since the federal law was enacted in 1996, nine states and the District of Columbia have made it legal for gays and lesbians to marry. Same-sex unions also were legal in California for nearly five months in 2008 before the Proposition 8 ban.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote in close cases, joined the four more-liberal justices in raising questions Wednesday about a provision that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal law.

It affects more than 1,100 statutes in which marital status is relevant, dealing with tax breaks for married couples, Social Security survivor benefits and, for federal employees, health insurance and leave to care for spouses.

Kennedy said the Defense of Marriage Act appears to intrude on the power of states that have chosen to recognize same-sex marriages. When so many federal statutes are affected, “which in our society means that the federal government is intertwined with the citizens’ day-to-day life, you are at real risk of running in conflict with what has always been thought to be the essence of the state police power, which is to regulate marriage, divorce, custody,” Kennedy said.

Other justices said the law creates what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called two classes of marriage, full and “skim-milk marriage.”

If the court does strike down part of DOMA, it would represent a victory for gay rights advocates. But it would be something short of the endorsement of gay marriage nationwide that some envisioned when the justices agreed in December to hear the federal case and the challenge to California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Still, the tenor of the arguments over two days reflected how quickly attitudes have changed since large majorities in Congress passed the federal DOMA in 1996 and President Bill Clinton signed it into law. In 2011, President Barack Obama abandoned the legal defense of the law in the face of several lawsuits, and last year Obama endorsed gay marriage. Clinton, too, has voiced regret for signing the law and now supports allowing gays and lesbians to marry.

In 1996, the House of Representatives’ report on the legislation explained that one of its purposes was “to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.” Justice Elena Kagan read those words in the courtroom Wednesday, evoking a reaction from the audience that sounded like a cross between a gasp and nervous laughter.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a court filing Monday that Texas’ new voting maps for Congress and for the Texas House do not meet federal anti-discrimination requirements, setting up a legal battle that will decide the landscape of future elections in the state.

The case, which involves the election districts drawn by the Republican-led Texas Legislature, will likely be decided by a federal court in Washington, D.C.

District boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to reflect changes in census data. Any changes to Texas’ voting practices must be cleared by a federal court or the Justice Department to ensure changes do not discriminate based on race or color.

The Justice Department took issue with the maps for Congress and the Texas House, but it agreed with the state attorney general that maps for the Texas Senate and State Board of Education met requirements under the federal Voting Rights Act. But the Justice Department reiterated that the court would have to make its own determination on the education board and Senate maps.

The agency denied that the congressional and House plans maintain or increase the ability of minority voters to elect their candidate of choice, as required by federal law. The Voting Rights Act requires map drawers to give special protection to districts that contain mostly minorities.

“The D.C. court will have to hear these issues fully and we will have a chance to put in our evidence supporting why we think that the plan should not be pre-cleared,” said Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal and Defense Fund, which has joined the case.

“Now, it’s going to have to be decided by the court.”

A separate trial combining lawsuits filed against the plans wrapped up last week in San Antonio. During the trial, minority groups argued the new voting districts don’t reflect the statewide Hispanic population boom over the past decade in Texas.

Texas received four new congressional seats following the last census, more than any other state. The new congressional map was drawn with the goal of protecting and possibly expanding the 23-9 majority enjoyed by Republicans in Texas’ delegation in Washington.

Hispanics have accounted for two-thirds of the state’s growth since 2000. Yet during the two-week federal trial, opponents argued that GOP mapmakers went out of their way to stifle those gains and deny Hispanics greater voting power.

Democrats argued that the map passed by the Texas Legislature this summer simply packed Hispanics and blacks into the same districts.

Last week, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a bill that overrides a federal mandate phasing out incandescent lightbulbs. The legislation flies in the face of constitutional authority and judicial precedent. Unfortunately, it is also symptomatic of state Republicans’ continued efforts to score cheap political points at the expense of solving real problems.

One of the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, passed by Congress and signed into law by then President George W. Bush, stipulated that today’s incandescent lightbulbs would be gradually phased out starting in 2012. The ubiquitous lightbulb, described in The New York Times as “technology that arose around the time of the telegraph and the steam locomotive,” has for decades been eclipsed in efficiency by its rivals. One of them, the compact fluorescent lamp, had been favored by Congress to replace the incandescent bulbs because of its greater energy efficiency (read: lower electric bill), longer lifespan, and potential in reducing greenhouse gases.

None of these reasons have prevented state Republicans from attacking the federal law based on what they perceive to be flaws inherent in the lamps. They point out that lamps are generally more expensive to purchase than incandescent lightbulbs. According to the government-run Energy Star program a lamp can save more than $40 in electricity costs over a lifetime.

They also point out that, unlike incandescent bulbs, fluoresent lamps contain mercury and are a hazard to homes everywhere, although Consumer Reports states that “each bulb has a tiny fraction of the mercury in a traditional fever thermometer.”

Perhaps most predictably, these Republican politicians are conjuring up images of the mandate as an unfair diktat of which the primary intention is to strip individual choice from freedom-loving Texans, just as Obamacare’s health insurance mandate supposedly did. Yet when the federal government mandated in the late 1990s an end to the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbon, a harmful compound in refrigerators proven to damage the ozone layer, no state Republican was quick to protest at this presumed loss of freedom.

The new Texas law, ratified as HB 2510, states that any incandescent lightbulb manufactured in Texas and labeled as “Made in Texas” can be freely sold on Texas soil.

The rationale of the bill’s authors was that since the U.S. Constitution permits the federal government to regulate commerce between states (vis-a-vis the Commerce Clause), the same government can’t regulate commerce within a state itself. As long as the Texas-made incandescent was created strictly for the Texas consumer, Uncle Sam has no legal prerogative to interfere.

But this new state law blatantly ignores the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which holds that a federal law supersedes any state laws. Moreover, the landmark Supreme Court case Wickard v. Filburn (1942) also recognized the federal government’s right to regulate economic activity. It’s a sad day when our state government feels compelled to challenge the federal government’s authority over such an inconsequential issue as a lightbulb mandate.

Yet such radical actions make sense when the current legislative session at the Capitol has been one of the most ideologically driven in recent memory.

State Republican lawmakers have also made national headlines when they began aggressively supporting a so-called “anti-groping bill.” The bill could press criminal charges against federal Transportation Security Administration employees if they were deemed to be groping passengers. In retaliation, the Department of Justice threatened to ground all flights originating from Texas, which prompted state Republicans to back down and withdraw the bill.

Both the “anti-groping bill” and the recently passed lightbulb law are echoes of a Republican zeal to pander to their base by finding increasingly frivolous reasons to pick fights with Washington. By furthering the narrative of states’ rights against an intrusive federal government preoccupied with lightbulb mandates instead of job growth, state Republicans are engaging in embarrassing distractions that do not solve our state’s serious economic issues this summer.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Two House members introduced a bill Thursday that would remove marijuana from the list of federal controlled substances and cede to the states enforcement of laws governing the drug.

The legislation would eliminate marijuana-specific penalties under federal law, but would maintain a ban on transporting marijuana across state lines. It would allow individuals to grow and sell marijuana in states that make it legal.

The bill has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled House.

The bill was introduced by Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Ron Paul, a Texas Republican running for his party's presidential nomination.

Four Democrats are co-sponsors: John Conyers of Michigan, Barbara Lee of California, Jared Polis of Colorado and Steve Cohen of Tennessee.

"Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom," Frank said.

"I do not advocate urging people to smoke marijuana. Neither do I urge them to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke tobacco. But in none of these cases do I think prohibition enforced by criminal sanctions is good public policy."

The bill would have to go through the House Judiciary Committee. Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said his panel would not consider it.

"Marijuana use and distribution is prohibited under federal law because it has a high potential for abuse and does not have an accepted medical use in the U.S.," Smith said. "The Food and Drug Administration has not approved smoked marijuana for any condition or disease.

"Decriminalizing marijuana will only lead to millions more Americans becoming addicted to drugs and greater profits for drug cartels who fund violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Allowing states to determine their own marijuana policy flies in the face of Supreme Court precedent."