Texas Supreme Court halts Harris County 'Guaranteed Income' program

This is the second time the high court has ruled on, and halted, the program.

Published: June 14, 2024 10:14pm

(The Center Square) -

The Texas Supreme Court halted a "guaranteed income" pilot program launched by Harris County on Friday, likely setting the stage for the program to be scrapped altogether.

In a 12-page ruling, Justice Jimmy Blacklock delivered the opinion for the court, granting the state's motion to halt the program and ordered all payments "prohibited pending further order of this court."

This is the second time the high court has ruled on, and halted, the program.

In April, the Texas Supreme Court issued an administrative stay to temporarily block Harris County's "Uplift Harris" guaranteed income pilot program from going into effect until the court could hear the case, granting an emergency request filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton, The Center Square reported.

Harris County first announced its plan in June 2023 to use $20.5 million in COVID-19 relief money it received through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act to "provide no-strings-attached $500 monthly cash payments to 1,928 Harris County residents for 18 months." The Democratic-controlled Harris County Commissioner's Court approved the program despite the federal government stipulating that the funds could only be used for COVID-19-related programs.

In January, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, sounded the alarm, saying the program is illegal and requested Paxton to issue a formal opinion. Paxton sued in April to stop the program.

By February, more than 82,000 Harris County residents had applied to participate; by April, the county had chosen participants who were slated to receive their first payment April 24.

Paxton's lawsuit argues Uplift Harris violates the Texas Constitution, which prohibits "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."

Two courts first ruled against him. The 165th District Court and the 14th Court of Appeals denied his request for a temporary injunction, ruling in favor of Harris County. Paxton then filed and emergency appeal with the Texas Supreme Court. It first temporarily halted the program in April, preventing any payments from being made.

It handed Paxton a second win on Friday, more permanently blocking the payments from being made.

"We conclude that the State's motion for temporary relief should be granted," Justice Blacklock said in the ruling. "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."

Later on in the ruling, he points out that Harris County has no plans to oversee how the money is spent, raising concerns that it could be usedto potentially commit crimes.

"Uplift Harris has advertised a 'no strings attached' stipend to those lucky enough to win its lottery. It appears there will be no public control over the funds after they are disbursed," he writes. "It likewise appears there will be no monitoring of the recipients' day-to-day purchases, so it is unlikely the County will know how recipients spend the money and whether any legitimate public purpose was achievedthereby.

"The application states that funds must not be used for terrorism, fraud, or other nefarious activities, but we are given no indication that the County intends to, or even could, meaningfully enforce these restrictions or truly monitor the recipients' expenditures. Indeed, a County official testified that the program is not designed "to monitor what people do with the things they buy."

His ruling contradicts a claim made by Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, who is defending the program in court. Menefee argued it doesn't violate the Texas Constitution because it serves a "'public purpose."

In response to the ruling, Paxton said, "Harris County's guaranteed income scheme is a clear and flagrant violation of the Texas Constitution." The Texas Supreme Court "has stepped in and put a stop to this abuse of power and unlawful use of taxpayer money while the case continues."

Menefee said the ruling, which he disagreed with, was a "disappointing move."

The ruling "could impact how the GOP attacks similar programs across the U.S.," he said. "Helping the poor is part of our job in government. That's why programs like this exist across the country and our state. This decision could end Uplift Harris as it exists today."

He said his office "will keep fighting for Harris County residents and local control."

Justice Blacklock notes that while the case is before two lower courts, the state's appeal of the 14th Court of Appeals' denial of a temporary injunction remains pending, "which we expect will proceed expeditiously to a decision."The appeals court's decision could also be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, he said.

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