Apr 29, 2024 - News

Legal fight over Uplift Harris continues

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee speaks at a press conference

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee speaks at a recent press conference. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Harris County has asked the Texas Supreme Court to allow its guaranteed income pilot program to proceed as courts decide whether it's legal.

Why it matters: The fate of the Uplift Harris program remains uncertain as the state Supreme Court weighs a legal challenge from Attorney General Ken Paxton.

  • The 18-month program, if allowed to move forward, will send $500 a month to 1,900 low-income Harris County families.

State of play: 8% of Harris County residents live in areas of persistent poverty, per the Houston Chronicle.

Catch up quick: Harris County commissioners approved the program in June 2023, and by February, more than 82,500 residents had applied to be considered for payments.

  • Paxton, with support from state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), sued Harris County earlier this month, arguing that the program violates a provision of the Texas Constitution that bans local governments from granting public money to individuals.

After a judge upheld Uplift Harris last week, Paxton asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in on the case and stop payments from going out while the legal battle plays out.

  • Responding to Paxton, the court temporarily halted payments April 23 — the day before they were set to be disbursed.

Driving the news: Harris County asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to allow payments to resume as the case continues.

The intrigue: Harris County's response Monday echoed its previous legal arguments that the program aligns with the Texas Constitution because it serves a public purpose, namely reducing poverty, reducing unemployment, and improving the incentive and ability to work, among other things.

What they're saying: "If they grant it to Ken Paxton, it's going to be unfortunate," Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee tells Axios. "The program will be in real peril."

The other side: After the state Supreme Court blocked payments last week, Bettencourt said on X that it was "logically better to get a [legal] ruling" before the county starts sending payments.

  • Paxton, when touting the legal victory last week, said the program was an "egregious misuse of taxpayer money."

Meanwhile, similar programs that use public dollars in Austin and San Antonio have gone unchallenged.

  • Families that benefited from the Austin and San Antonio programs mostly spent the funds on housing costs, separate follow-up surveys found.

Between the lines: Harris County's Democratic leaders also say it's a matter of political games from state Republicans.

  • "I don't expect this to get a fair shake with the Texas Supreme Court," Menefee told Houston Public Media last week. "There used to be a time where you could disagree on politics, but we could trust our institutions to do the right thing under the law, and I'm just not optimistic that that's going to happen with the Texas Supreme Court."
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