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Texas Supreme Court questions constitutionality of Harris County guaranteed income program

The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) has again stayed a Harris County plan to provide no-strings-attached monthly stipends through a Universal Basic Income (UBI) pilot program using federal COVID-19 relief funds and expressed doubt about the legality of the program under the Texas Constitution.

The opinion written by Justice James Blacklock relates to a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton challenging the constitutionality of Uplift Harris, a plan to send $500 no-strings-attached monthly stipends to selected Harris County residents. 

“Although we make no definitive statement about the merits, the State has raised serious doubt about the constitutionality of the Uplift Harris program, and this potential violation of the Texas Constitution could not be remedied or undone if payments were to commence while the underlying appeal proceeds,” wrote Blacklock. 

SCOTX had previously granted an administrative stay in April, just after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that despite pending litigation the county would begin sending out payments that afternoon. 

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) suit points to provisions in the Texas Constitution that expressly prohibit giving funds to benefit individuals, and grants counties a limited scope of authority – more limited than that afforded to home-rule cities. 

Blacklock also cites previous SCOTX interpretations of the state Constitution requiring that “a government in Texas that desires to dole out public funds must, among other things, ‘retain public control over the funds to ensure the public purpose is accomplished and to protect the public’s investment,’” but that Harris County has expressly advertised the UBI as having “no-strings-attached.”

Harris County claims that the Uplift Harris program qualifies as economic development and therefore legitimate, but SCOTX responded, “We are skeptical of the County’s position at this preliminary stage.”

The commissioners court approved the UBI plan, also known as guaranteed basic income, last year that provides monthly payments to 1,928 residents for 18 months using $20.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Applicants for the 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 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.

Paxton’s lawsuit came in response to a request from state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) who noted 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…”

“Harris County’s guaranteed income scheme is a clear and flagrant violation of the Texas Constitution,” said Attorney General Paxton in a press release. “SCOTX has stepped in and put a stop to this abuse of power and unlawful use of taxpayer money while the case continues."

While SCOTX has extended the stay on disbursing funds through Uplift Harris for now, the case has not yet been resolved as an appeal and the State’s petition remains pending. 

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