In response to a state challenge against Harris County’s controversial guaranteed basic income pilot program, Uplift Harris, the Texas Supreme Court issued a stay ordering that Harris County continue to refrain from issuing a planned $500 monthly stipend to families. 

In response, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said, “I disagree with the decision, which could impact how the GOP attacks similar programs across the US. … This decision could end Uplift Harris as it exists today.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton who brought forward the initial challenge to the program said, “Harris County’s guaranteed income scheme is a clear and flagrant violation of the Texas Constitution. SCOTX has stepped in and put a stop to this abuse of power and unlawful use of taxpayer money while the case continues.”

Last year, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted to create the program to send $500 monthly payments for 18 months to roughly 1,900 low-income Harris County families. There would be self-reporting requirements, no oversight on individual spending, and no strings attached for those who qualified. The county planned to use $20.5 million of unspent federal relief aid from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund the pilot program.

In his opinion, Justice Jimmy Blacklock compared the program to other welfare programs like food stamps or vouchers by saying that those funds are directed for an intended purpose while Uplift Harris was not. Uplift Harris allowed potential recipients to spend money on whatever expense they chose as long as it was legal. 

Requiring the government to follow the law benefits everyone. Temporarily preventing expenditure of these funds while the State’s appeal proceeds ensures public funds are not irrecoverably spent in violation of the Texas Constitution. Whether Harris County’s proposal would actually violate the Texas Constitution remains an open question at this early stage of the litigation. 

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the driving force behind the program, said, “The state’s cruel decision to deny resources to families in need is misguided. Today’s decision could impact many similar programs that help Texas families and sets a dangerous precedent.” 

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.