Cameron Thompson

HOUSTON (CN) — The Texas Attorney General’s Office sued Harris County on Tuesday over its Uplift Harris guaranteed income program, marking the newest legal and political battle between Houston and Austin.

Uplift Harris, established using a $20.5 million federal grant under the American Rescue Plan Act, would give 1,928 Harris County residents $500 per month for 18 months, which they can use as they see fit. The recipients would be chosen randomly from the broader pool of applicants, roughly 82,000 according to public data, who live below 200% of the federal poverty line. Harris County’s program follows dozens of similar programs across the country, including Austin, though only a few are county-run.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo and County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, both Democrats, announced the program last June. Ellis pitched the programs as a way to address “[the] decades of neglect, inequity, and discrimination [that] have financially destabilized generations of Harris County families, perpetuated poverty, and created unfair barriers to prosperity.” Applications began in January and the first cohort was expected to start receiving funds as early as April 24.

But Republican officials in Austin have been skeptical of the program’s constitutionality for some time. In January 2024, state Senator Paul Bettencourt wrote to Attorney General Paxton and questioned the legality of the program. “Do counties have the authority to enact a guaranteed income program?” Bettencourt asked. “Would such a policy violate the gift prohibition clause in the Texas Constitution?”

Paxton's lawsuit, filed in Harris County Court on April 9th, attacked the program on both of those points.

The state argues the program violates Article III, Section 52(a) of the Texas Constitution, which says counties lack the authority “to lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual,” with or without authorization by the Legislature.

For a county program to be valid under that section, the program must accomplish a public purpose, its funding must remain under county control and must return a benefit to the county. Uplift Harris, according to the state, failed all three requirements, because the beneficiaries of the program are chosen at random and do not have to pay the money back.

The state also claims that because the recipients are chosen at random and make up such a small share of the county — just 0.04% — the program created a “purely arbitrary” class of people. Thus, the program violated Article I, Section 3 of the Texas Constitution, which states that no one “is entitled to exclusive separate emoluments or privileges.”

But alongside the legal arguments, the attorney general drops in some politically charged language. Paxton and his team call the program the “Harris Handout” and a “socialist experiment by Lina Hidalgo and the progressive Democrats responsible for the Harris County disaster.” They also claim that these funds were being “doled out as door prizes at the voting booth.”

Elections have been a major point of contention, as that last point alludes to, between Democratic officials in Houston and Harris County and Republican state officials in Austin. Harris County, a large Democratic stronghold in the Republican-dominated state, sued the state last year over a law that would eliminate the county's local control of its elections. The county established an independent election administration in 2020, which drew the ire of the attorney general. Likewise, Governor Greg Abbott cast doubt over the county’s election in 2022.

The state wants a judge to block Harris County from distributing the funds while the case is pending.