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Texas Supreme Court halts Harris County guaranteed income program

The Supreme Court of Texas issued an order on Tuesday morning to temporarily halt a Harris County plan to send select residents $500 payments, in response to an emergency request from Attorney General Ken Paxton and a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the program.

“Without regard to the merits, the Court grants an administrative stay as follows: Real parties in interest and their agents are prohibited from making payments under the Uplift Harris program pending further order of this Court,” reads the SCOTX order.

“I’m pleased the Supreme Court of Texas has blocked Harris County from disbursing these unlawful payments,” said Attorney General Paxton. “I look forward to continuing to defend our Constitution and preventing this egregious misuse of taxpayer money.”

The stay came less than an hour after the Harris County Commissioners Court considered the issue in an executive session, after which County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that the county had opted to go ahead with issuing payments despite the pending litigation.

Initially, the county had planned to send the checks on Wednesday, April 24, but at about 11:00 a.m. Hidalgo stated payments would go out immediately.

“The first payment is now out the door. We look forward to the court adopting our legal position, and we’re going to send out the payments as long as it’s considered legal,” said Hidalgo, who noted that checks would go only to 1,600 individuals who had been verified as eligible.

Minutes later, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) announced on social media that the first payments had already been sent.

The high court announced the stay blocking the payments at 11:36 a.m.

At a press conference later in the day, Hidalgo backtracked her earlier comments, saying no funds had been transferred.

The commissioners court approved the basic income program last year that provides “no-strings-attached” monthly payments to 1,928 residents for 18 months using $20.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Applicants for the county’s program, dubbed Uplift Harris, must earn below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or $60,000 for a household of four. Those eligible had to either reside in one of 10 high-poverty ZIP codes or already participate in the county’s Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self Sufficiency (ACCESS) program.

Of the more than 80,000 applicants, the Harris County Public Health Department randomly chose the 1,928 recipients through a lottery system.

The county delayed the launch of the Uplift Harris application system after questions emerged over whether illegal immigrants would be eligible. After the county attorney’s office advised that federal rules prohibited awarding the funds to those in the country illegally, Hidalgo vowed to explore avenues for making stipends available to illegal immigrants in Harris County.

In January, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) requested an opinion from Paxton on the legality of the program, noting that Article III of the Texas Constitution states that “the Legislature shall have no power to authorize 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, association, or corporation whatsoever…”

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) filed a lawsuit earlier this month, and although district court Judge Ursula Hall denied Harris County’s motion to dismiss the case, she also refused to issue an injunction against implementing Uplift Harris. A three-judge panel of the 14th Court of Appeals also refused to issue an injunction, leading to Paxton’s emergency request to the state’s highest court.

“Harris County’s guaranteed income scheme plainly violates the Texas Constitution,” said Paxton in a statement. “Harris County officials cannot continue to abuse their power and the people’s money to score political points, and we will fight every step of the way to hold them accountable.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee lambasted SCOTX justices on social media for blocking the program.

“Today’s decision is disappointing but not surprising given how politicized we’ve seen the Texas Supreme Court become,” wrote Menefee. “The Court knew that the first payments were scheduled to go out tomorrow.”

Uplift Harris is slated to be administered by the nonprofit organization GiveDirectly, the same group that administered a Cook County program that reportedly offered guaranteed income to illegal immigrants. Federal law does not require nonprofit organizations to check immigration status before providing services or resources.

Last year, GiveDirectly had to suspend operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after learning that staff and former employees had stolen $900,000 in a fraud scheme.

SCOTX has given Harris County until 4:30 p.m. on Monday, April 29 to respond to the temporary injunction.

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