Texas AG Ken Paxton fails to block Houston’s basic income plan

Is it a violation of the Texas Constitution for a city to give money to its low-income residents?

On Thursday, a Texas state court judge answered with a definitive “no” — the first ruling in what is shaping up to be a long legal fight over that question.

“There is sufficient evidence to show that guaranteed income programs are successful, so why wouldn’t we believe it?” Judge Ursula Hall said.

In her ruling, Hall blocked a push by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) to keep Harris County — the state’s most populous county and the home of Houston — from implementing Uplift Harris, which would give $500 per week to 1,900 low-income residents.

“Proud to defend an important program that’ll help folks lift themselves out of poverty,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee wrote Thursday on the social platform X.

“The state will appeal. But we will keep fighting,” he added.

The Harris County measure followed similar experiments with guaranteed income in Austin, El Paso and San Antonio, according to The Texas Tribune. The Austin experiment found that recipients — who had been more likely to face eviction than the average Texan when the study began — became more housing secure as their peers across Texas faced worsening housing insecurity, a report on the program by the Urban Institute found. (Their food security increased, as well.) The researchers found that the Austin recipients largely spent the money on housing, and most kept their current employment.

In a filing earlier this month, Paxton argued this was “plainly unconstitutional” and accused Harris County officials of “abusing public funds for political gain.”

“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,” Paxton said in a statement.

His lawsuit suggested the surprising possibility that the plan was unconstitutional not because it was basic income, but because it wasn’t universal. “The Constitution also provides that everyone has ‘equal rights, and no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive separate public emoluments,'” Paxton wrote, adding that “this lottery-based handout violates the Texas Constitution because the selection of recipients is inherently arbitrary.”

The lawsuit from the state attorney general’s office marked yet another in a long stream of actions by the office against cities for what have traditionally been seen as issues of local authority.

For example, a suit the AG’s office filed last month argued that Austin’s plan to use of certain financial tools to build a light-rail system was “void” because it allegedly violated state law, and earlier this year he sued five Texas cities that had decriminalized marijuana enforcement.

In statements after the suit was announced, Harris County officials focused on the question of local control. “Giving people the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty is both morally sound and good public policy,” Menefee said earlier this month.

“It’s ridiculous that politicians in Austin would be traveling to Harris County just to block us from helping people.”

And in an exchange with The Hill, Menefee noted that Paxton’s posture was ironic given that the attorney general is a staunch political ally of former President Trump — who presided over the COVID-19 era Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

While not explicitly a basic income program, the PPP involved $757 billion in forgiven loans to American small businesses. Uplift Harris is paid out of funds Houston received under the American Rescue Plan, a COVID-era stimulus package.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) reiterated a standing invitation to Paxton’s office. “My invitation remains to introduce the Attorney General to some of the hardworking families who can’t pay the bills without this aid,” she said in a statement.

Like Menefee, she said she expected the next step to be an appellate court but said “we will keep fighting for Uplift Harris every step of the way.”

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