Texas Senator Questions Legality of Harris County’s Basic Income Program

Bettencourt asked the Texas attorney general to weigh in on whether the plan to give $500 monthly stipends violates the Texas Constitution.

Texas Senator Questions Legality of Harris County's Basic Income Program
Texas Senator Questions Legality of Harris County's Basic Income Program

By Holly Hansen

See original post here.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has requested an expedited opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton on whether Harris County’s universal basic income (UBI) pilot program giving select residents a $500 “no strings attached” stipend violates the Texas Constitution.

“Counties are not home rule cities,” Bettencourt told The Texan. “I don’t know where the Legislature gave them the authority to do a pure giveaway program.”

In a formal request to Paxton on January 12, Bettencourt cited Article III of the Texas Constitution stating that “the Legislature shall have no power to authorize any county, city, town or other political corporation or subdivision of the State … to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association, or corporation whatsoever…”

Approved by the Harris County Commissioners Court last summer using $20.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, applications for the UBI pilot program, dubbed Uplift Harris, opened last Friday.

To qualify for the program an applicant must earn less than double the federal poverty line. For example, a household of four would need to make less than $60,000 a year. Those eligible must either reside in one of 10 high-poverty ZIP codes or already participate in the county’s Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self Sufficiency (ACCESS) program.

Once applicants are approved, the county will randomly choose 1,900 recipients to receive $500 each month for 18 months, with no limitation on what the funds may be used for.

“That amounts to a gift of $9,000 to these selected individuals,” said Bettencourt. “I do not see how it doesn’t violate the Constitution’s ‘gift clause’ in Article III.”

The Harris County Attorney’s Office did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.

The county delayed the originally scheduled launch of Uplift Harris due to concerns over whether illegal immigrants would be eligible. After a closed-door executive session last week, which was boycotted by Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3), Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that the pilot program would not be available to those in the country illegally due to federal restrictions.

Hidalgo vowed to explore options for another UBI that would allow the county to give stipends to illegal immigrants.

James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a critic of UBI, told The Texan that guaranteed basic income policies could be “disastrous.”

“I think that the negative implications of this program are going to manifest in two ways,” said Quintero. “One is it is going to incentivize individuals to become less productive. No longer are people going to have the same incentive to get out of bed and engage in productive activities, because they’ve got a government check in the mail.”

“Society is also going to suffer as productivity declines. So, both for these individuals and society alike, these programs pose a real threat.”

Quintero called Uplift Harris and UBI plans in Austin and elsewhere “constitutionally suspicious,” and said that TPPF would be analyzing the legality of the programs in the coming months.

During a press conference last week, Hidalgo said the UBI was needed to address poverty and “income inequality” in the county.

“Guaranteed income is a program that has shown a lot of promise,” said Hidalgo. “These programs have been implemented around the world and around the nation with positive results.”

Hidalgo said employment increased among recipients of similar programs in Stockton, California, and Hudson, New York.

In a 2018 analysis, the Heritage Foundation argued that examples of such policies in different states between 1968 and 1980 reduced yearly hours worked among recipients, leading to a reduction in overall earnings.

Harris County will continue to accept applications for Uplift Harris through February 2.

You may also be interested in...