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Paxton sues Harris County over $500 guaranteed basic income

The State of Texas and Harris County will again duke it out in court, this time over a guaranteed basic income pilot program that would give 1,500 households in the county $500 per month.

Harris County announced the program last year through Harris County Public Health. On Tuesday, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) filed suit asking the court to halt its implementation before the April 24 start date.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said of the suit, “This scheme is plainly unconstitutional. 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.”

The OAG’s suit reads, “There is no such thing as free money — especially in Texas. The Texas Constitution expressly prohibits giving away public funds to benefit individuals — a common sense protection to prevent cronyism and ensure that public funds benefit all citizens.”

Central to the state’s argument is that counties, “unlike home-rule cities,” have a substantially more narrow scope of authority. “[T]he legal basis for any action taken must be grounded ultimately in the constitution or statute,” the filing adds.

Both cities and counties are creations of the state, but municipalities have the home-rule provision that grants them a broader array of authority than is granted to counties. The range of that home-rule status is the subject of another suit, this one flowing in the opposite direction, against the Texas Legislature’s new field preemption law passed last year.

The City of Austin just completed the first year of its universal basic income program, allotting 85 families with $1,000 per month.

Texas’ contention here is that while a home-rule municipality could enact such a program, a county is explicitly precluded by the Texas Constitution.

Article III, Section 52(a) reads: “Except as otherwise provided by this section, the Legislature shall have no power to authorize any county, city, town or other political corporation or subdivision of the State to lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association or corporation whatsoever, or to become a stockholder in such corporation, association or company.”

The suit adds, “Second, Harris County does not retain public control over the funds. As described above, the payments have ‘no strings attached,’ and the recipients can use the money however they wish.”

The OAG requests a temporary restraining order against the program and, eventually, a permanent injunction against its operation.

In announcing the program last June — during a particularly fraught board of commissioners meeting — Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said, “Decades of neglect, inequality, and discrimination have financially destabilized generations of Harris County families.”

The lawsuit comes after state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) formally requested that the OAG evaluate the program.

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