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Texas Attorney General sues to stop guaranteed income program for Houston-area residents

HOUSTON (AP) — Texas’ attorney general filed a lawsuit on Tuesday seeking to stop a guaranteed income program set to start this month for Houston-area residents.

The program by Harris County, where Houston is located, is set to provide “no-strings-attached” $500 monthly cash payments to 1,928 county residents for 18 months. Those who qualified for the program must have a household income below 200% of the federal poverty line and need to live in one of the identified high-poverty zip codes.

The program is funded by $20.5 million from the American Rescue Plan, the pandemic relief law signed by President Joe Biden in 2021.

Federal pandemic funding has prompted dozens of cities and counties across the country to implement guaranteed income programs as ways to reduce poverty, lessen inequality and get people working.

In his lawsuit filed in civil court in Houston, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton dubbed the program the “Harris Handout” and described it as a “socialist experiment” by county officials that violates the Texas Constitution and is “an illegal and illegitimate government overreach.”

“This scheme is plainly unconstitutional,” Paxton said in a statement. “Taxpayer money must be spent lawfully and used to advance the public interest, not merely redistributed with no accountability or reasonable expectation of a general benefit.”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston who had asked Paxton to look into the county’s program, called it an “unbelievable waste” of taxpayer dollars and “Lottery Socialism.”

Harris County officials pushed back on Paxton’s lawsuit, which is asking for a temporary restraining order to stop the program. The first payments were set to be distributed as early as April 24.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said guaranteed income is one of the oldest and most successful anti-poverty programs, and she feels “for these families whose plans and livelihoods are being caught up in political posturing by Trumpian leaders in Texas.”

“This lawsuit from Ken Paxton reads more like a MAGA manifesto than a legal document,” said Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who spearheaded the program, known as Uplift Harris.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said the program “is about helping people in a real way by giving them direct cash assistance — something governments have always done.”

The lawsuit is the latest legal battle in recent years between Harris County, Texas’ biggest Democratic stronghold, and the GOP-dominated state government.

Elections in the nation’s third-most populous county have been scrutinized for several years now. The Texas Legislature passed new laws in 2023 seeking more influence over Harris County elections.

Last year, Texas took over the Houston school district, the state’s largest, after years of threats and lawsuits over student performance. Democrats assailed the move as political.

Austin and San Antonio have previously offered guaranteed income programs in Texas. El Paso County is set to roll out its own program later this year. No lawsuits have been filed against those programs.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

Juan A. Lozano, The Associated Press


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