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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues Harris County over its guaranteed income program

(Julia Reihs / KUT)
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The impeachment trial for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton starts 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 U.S. 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 benefit 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.”

This move from Paxton comes as little surprise after State Senator Paul Bettencourt asked Paxton to rule the program unconstitutional.

"This scheme is plainly unconstitutional," Paxton said. "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 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 governments use 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 in court,” Menefee said.

Copyright 2024 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

Ariel Worthy