Houston-area program to give $500 monthly payments to some residents on hold after Texas lawsuit

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered Harris County, which includes Houston, to put on hold a guaranteed income program that would provide $500 monthly cash payments to roughly 2,000 residents.

The program has become a target of Republican Texas Attorney General Paxton, who has accused local Democratic leaders of trying to “score political points” through the initiative and filed a lawsuit this month in an effort to block its implementation. The program is the latest rift between state and local leaders in the Houston area, where Democrats in recent years have gained political ground.

The Texas high court — which is made up entirely of Republican justices — made no ruling on the merits of the program, known as Uplift Harris. Still, the nine justices ordered the county to put the program on pause while the justices weigh its legality.

If implemented, Harris County would become one of the largest counties in the country with guaranteed income programs that have been replicated since the pandemic. Other major Texas cities, including Austin and San Antonio, have previously offered guaranteed income programs but did not face a lawsuit by the state.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Tuesday that he was not optimistic the county would “get a fair shake” from the Texas Supreme Court, which could permanently shut down the program.

“What we are seeing is the attorney general selectively enforcing the Texas Constitution against the county that he thinks he can make the most headlines off of,” Menefee said, adding that the lawsuit appeared to be a political move against an area with rising Democratic political power.

The program would provide cash payments to more than 1,900 qualifying county residents for 1 1/2 years. Eligible recipients must reside in an area identified with a high poverty rate and have a household income below 200% of the federal poverty line, which is about $30,000 for a single-person household.

It is funded by $20.5 million from President Joe Biden's 2021 pandemic relief package and follows in the footsteps of dozens of cities and counties across the country that have implemented guaranteed income programs to reduce poverty and inequality.

Paxton argued that the program, which he calls the “Harris Handout,” violates a line in the state constitution that prohibits local governments, political corporations or state entities from granting “public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual.”

“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," Paxton said in a statement Tuesday following his appeal to the state's highest civil court.

Meanwhile, Harris County officials continued to push back, arguing that the decision was politicized and pointed to orders by two lower courts, which did not pause the program.

According to Harris County officials, the county received more than 82,000 applications for the program by the February 2 deadline and distribution of the funds was set to begin tomorrow.

The lawsuit comes as the county has remained at odds with state Republican leaders for years, leading to multiple legal battles.

In 2021, state lawmakers passed voting legislation which targeted programs — implemented by the county the previous year — to facilitate voting during the COVID-19 pandemic for the county's more than 2 million voters.

During the state's next legislative session in 2023, GOP lawmakers passed new laws seeking more influence over Harris County elections.

Last year, state education leaders took over the Houston school district, the state’s largest, after years of complaints over student performance.