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Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocks Harris County guaranteed income program

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(The Center Square) – The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an administrative stay to temporarily block Harris County’s “Uplift Harris” guaranteed income pilot program from going into effect, granting a request filed earlier in the day by Attorney General Ken Paxton.

This is after two lower courts, the 165th District Court and the 14th Court of Appeals, denied his request for a temporary injunction, ruling in favor of Harris County in a lawsuit Paxton filed to stop it from going into effect.

More than 82,000 Harris County residents had applied to participate in the program as of its Feb. 2 deadline. Participants were already chosen and slated to receive their first payments April 24.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo first announced in June 2023 the plan to create the program using $20.5 million in COVID-19 relief money the county received through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. The Democratic-controlled Harris County Commissioner’s Court approved the program despite the federal government stipulating that the funds could only be used for COVID-19-related programs.

According to the plan, 1,928 Harris County residents would be chosen by lottery to participate after meeting certain criteria, including living at 200% below the poverty level in the county’s poorest 10 zip codes. Those chosen would receive $500 cash payments every month for 18 months with “no strings attached.”

In January, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, requested Paxton issue a formal opinion on the program, arguing it’s unconstitutional. He cited Article III of the Texas Constitution, which states that the Texas legislature “shall have no power to authorize any county, city, town, or other political subdivision of the state to lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual.” He also asked that the AG determine if counties have the authority to enact a guaranteed income program and if doing so violated the gift prohibition in the Texas Constitution.

In response, Paxton sued to stop the program from going into effect, arguing the Texas Constitution expressly forbids “any county, city, town or other political corporation or subdivision of the State … to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual.”

“Harris County’s program to give public money away with no conditions, no control over expenditure of that money, and no guarantee of public benefit is prohibited,” he added. “The Constitution also provides that everyone has ‘equal rights, and no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive separate public emoluments.’ This lottery-based handout violates the Texas Constitution because the selection of recipients is inherently arbitrary. County governments have limited authority to act and, like all governments, can only act in accordance with the Constitution. Harris County has exceeded that authority.

“Taxpayer money must be spent lawfully and used to advance the public interest, not merely redistributed with no accountability or reasonable expectation of a general benefit. I am suing to stop officials in Harris County from abusing public funds for political gain.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, who’s defending the program in court, argues “helping families in need is a proper use of government funds. Giving people the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty is both morally sound and good public policy.”

He also filed a brief with the OAG arguing the program doesn’t violate the constitutional provision because it serves a “‘public purpose,’ which is the relevant test created by Texas courts.”

After the Texas Supreme Court issued an administrative stay, Menefee, a Democrat, said the high court’s decision was “not surprising given how politicized we’ve seen the Texas Supreme Court become. We’ve already seen one justice publicly disparage Harris County officials during a speech at a political event and make clear his goal of undermining the County.”

Harris County courts are overwhelmingly run by Democratic judges. The Texas Supreme Court has a majority Republican bench and has been targeted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Democrat, to flip seats in the November election.

The high court directed the county to respond to the state’s motion for emergency relief by Monday. The court is expected to rule shortly thereafter.

Harris County is not the first to create such a program in Texas. In May 2022, Austin’s city council members approved a $1.1 million guaranteed income pilot program to be administered through a nonprofit, UpTogether, using taxpayer money. In September 2023, they allocated another $1.3 million of taxpayer money to fund a second guaranteed income program.

Former Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner first advocated for a guaranteed income program as one of 43 Democratic mayors who launched “Mayors for a Guaranteed Income” in April 2021. They argued “economic security isn’t a new challenge or a partisan issue” and one way to end or reduce poverty was to guarantee a certain level of income to low-income residents with no strings attached – funded by taxpayers.

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