Texas AG Ken Paxton sues Harris County to block program that would give cash to poorest households

The Houston skyline in November, 2017.
The Houston skyline in November 2017. Credit: Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued Harris County to block a new guaranteed income pilot program that would provide financial assistance to families in the county’s poorest neighborhoods.

Under the federally funded program, roughly 1,900 Harris County households would receive monthly cash payments of $500 for 18 months. The county put $20.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to launch the program, known as Uplift Harris, which is intended to help households in the county’s 10 poorest ZIP codes who are living 200% below the federal poverty line with no strings attached. Those families had already been selected and payments were slated to begin this month.

Conservatives balked at the program after Harris County commissioners approved it in June and have since tried to stop it. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston-area Republican who frequently has sought to undercut the county’s Democratic leadership, asked Paxton earlier this year to declare the law unconstitutional.

Paxton blasted the program in a legal filing, calling it an “illegal and illegitimate government overreach” and dubbing it the “Harris Handout.” Paxton argues the pilot program violates a section of the Texas Constitution that says no local government can “lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value” to individuals.

“This scheme is plainly unconstitutional,” Paxton said in an April 9 statement. “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.”

Harris County officials dismissed Paxton’s move as the latest effort by the state’s Republican leadership to curtail the county’s authority.

“This lawsuit is nothing more than another attack on Harris County government by Republican state leaders looking to make headlines,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “This program is about helping people in a real way by giving them direct cash assistance — something governments have always done. I cannot for the life of me understand why any public servant would be opposed to that.”

A state appeals court on April 22 blocked Paxton's emergency move to temporarily block the county from distributing the funds, upholding a lower court's ruling. Shortly after the appeals court's ruling, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the county will start sending payments to program participants.

“Helping families in need is a proper use of government funds,” Menefee said in an April 18 statement. “Giving people the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty is both morally sound and good public policy. It’s ridiculous that politicians in Austin would be traveling to Harris County just to block us from helping people.”

Paxton is expected to appeal and take the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

Harris County is the latest Texas locality to experiment with guaranteed income programs, following efforts in Austin, San Antonio and El Paso County. Local officials across the country turned to such efforts in recent years to help needy families weather high housing and food costs and bounce back from the pandemic’s economic fallout. Beneficiaries of a guaranteed income pilot program in Austin, which ended last year, received $1,000 a month and mostly used that money to help them stay housed as the city faced exorbitant increases in home prices and rents, an Urban Institute survey found.

Houston residents broadly support the idea of guaranteed income, according to polling from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. More than 75% of respondents to a 2023 Kinder poll said they support a “universal basic income for low-income, working adults.”

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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