Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues Harris County over its guaranteed income program – Houston Public Media

Ken Paxton

Tony Gutierrez

The impeachment trial for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton begins Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Tuesday a lawsuit against Harris County for its guaranteed income program.

The program, which was launched by Uplift Harris earlier this year, will provide nearly 2,000 households with an income below 200% of the federal poverty level with $500 monthly payments for 18 months. Two hundred percent below the federal poverty line is equivalent to a family of four earning a $60,000 yearly income.

Paxton said in a press release that the “unlawful” program “redistributes public money in a manner that violates the Texas Constitution.”

Funding for the program comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, which the county received for COVID relief initiatives. Other US cities with a guaranteed income program have used ARPA funds to pay for the program.

“The program was met with additional backlash when it was announced that certain classifications of noncitizens would be eligible for the handouts,” Paxton said.

In January, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a commissioners court meeting that undocumented residents were not eligible to apply.

“Unfortunately, we won’t be able to, because this program is with federal funds, we won’t be able to offer this program to the undocumented population,” she said.

Those chosen would be able to use the money for anything, as long as it’s legal, according to Harris County. When applications closed in February, more than 82,000 applications had been submitted. About 90% of those applications were identified as Black or Hispanic households.

“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’,” Paxton said. “Harris County’s program to give public money away with no conditions, no control over expenditure of that money, and no guarantee of public benefits is prohibited.

“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.”

In a statement, Hidalgo said, “I feel for these families whose plans and livelihoods are being caught up in political posturing by Trumpian leaders in Texas.”

“Like with abortion rights and basic gun safety, Texas far-right leaders grab at any opportunity to proclaim their Trumpian rhetoric, and they do it with impunity because they know that the people they’re hurting are not their billionaire donors, but everyday people with limited political power,” Hidalgo said. “The filing reads like a Trumpian manifesto and its logic is nonsensical. Trump himself instituted and touted a program in 2020 that sent checks to individuals beneath a certain income level. Several Texas jurisdictions have carried out similar programs for years without issue.”

This move from Paxton came as a little surprise after State Senator Paul Bettencourt asked Paxton to rule the program unconstitutional. Bettencourt praised Paxton’s move on Tuesday.

“When I first saw that Harris County was going to take applications on a Universal Basic Income, UBI, program I knew I had to act. I immediately submitted an opinion request to the Attorney General’s office to look at this issue because I was very concerned that the ‘Uplift Harris’ program violates the ‘gift clause’ of the Texas constitution, especially since it is a lottery of who wins the money,” Bettencourt said. “There is 1 lucky winner for every 40 losers in this Leftist Progressive program. ”

Bettencourt added that the program was a “waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“This scheme is plainly unconstitutional,” Paxton said. “Taxpayer money must be spent legally 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 D. Menefee, who will represent the defendants in the suit, said the lawsuit is “nothing more than another attack on Harris County government by Republican state leaders looking to make headlines.”

“This program is about helping people in a real way by giving them direct cash assistance—something governments have always done. I cannot for the life of me understand why any public servant would be opposed to that,” Menefee said in a statement from his office. “When corporations are given taxpayer dollars Republican leaders in Austin call it ‘economic development’. When the government uses federal dollars to actually help people, Republican leaders in Austin call it socialism.”

Menefee said the hearing for the state’s request for an immediate ruling to block Harris County from beginning to make payments under the program will take place in the next few weeks.

“I will vigorously defend the county and this program on court,” Menefee said.

Read the full lawsuit below:

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