Amid constitutionality concerns, a state senator is seeking an opinion on Harris County’s newly-launched guaranteed basic income program. 

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt submitted a request for an opinion from the attorney general’s office in reference to state law barring jurisdictions from granting or gifting public money to individuals. The request hopes to clarify whether or not Harris County’s program, Uplift Harris—which will provide 1,900 households $500 per month for 18 months—is in violation of the state constitution and if counties have the authority to enact such a program at all.

The expansion of guaranteed basic income programs both in Texas and nationwide has been pushed for years, well before the recent growth in popularity among jurisdictions hoping to implement them. 

The idea of guaranteed income, while not new, saw a boost in popularity following the Trump administration’s unconditional cash payments given out to millions of qualified Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, many local jurisdictions have used leftover federal aid, budgetary funds, or private donations to launch their own programs. There’s uncertainty around the legality of the programs, and jurisdictions have all taken different stances. 

Austin has implemented a program that is in effect today. After their initial pilot program, the city allocated an additional $1.3 million to extend and expand the program.

Stafford City Council, which recently explored the idea of implementing a local property tax, inquired about implementing a similar program in their city, but the idea was shelved when the city attorney deemed it illegal. 

In 2020, San Antonio launched its own program, giving 1,000 low-income families $400 quarterly for two years. The city used $2 million in federal relief aid and partnered with charities and private organizations to fund the rest.  

Last legislative session, State Sen. Mayes Middleton and State Rep. Ellen Troxclair filed companion bills to prohibit jurisdictions from implementing “universal basic income.” However, neither received committee hearings in their respective chambers. State Rep. Steve Toth and State Rep. Briscoe Cain both filed bills banning the practice in the 87th regular and 87th special sessions, respectively.

Bettencourt’s request was submitted on January 12, the day Uplift Harris was officially launched, and as such, he has asked for an expedited request from the attorney general’s office. 

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.