The Texas Supreme Court blocks Harris County from sending guaranteed income payments

County officials said the $500 monthly stipends would be sent out Tuesday but dropped that after the Supreme Court blocked the program.

By Paul Cobler and McKenna Oxenden, Houston LandingApril 24, 2024 9:34 am,

From Houston Landing:

The Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency stay of Harris County’s guaranteed income program Tuesday, blocking the county from issuing any payments pending further action from the court.

The stay came shortly after Harris County officials said they would begin issuing payments immediately, one day before they originally were scheduled.

“The public health director had her finger on the button, so to speak, but before the funds began transferring, the Supreme Court made its ruling,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during a Tuesday press conference.

The high court ruling was in response to a request from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for an emergency writ of mandamus to block Harris County’s new guaranteed income program by the end of the day.

Two lower courts in Houston already had denied Paxton’s attempts to block the program, Uplift Harris, in recent days.

In a statement, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said the court’s decision was “disappointing, but not surprising given how politicized we’ve seen the Texas Supreme Court become.”

“It’s unfortunate the court would take such an extraordinary step to block a program that would help people in Harris County—even temporarily,” Menefee wrote. “The Court knew that the first payments were scheduled to go out tomorrow. I will keep fighting to protect this program, and I look forward to continuing to argue that Uplift Harris is good legally and morally.”

Payments for the program initially were scheduled to go out Wednesday, but at Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the payments immediately would begin going out the door. Given the state’s “focus” on Uplift Harris, she added, the county will operate the program “one payment at a time.”

“We will send out the payments as long as it is considered legal,” Hidalgo said.

The Texas Supreme Court’s action immediately quashed that.

“Without regard to the merits, the Court grants an administrative stay as follows: Real parties in interest and their agents are prohibited from making payments under the Uplift Harris program pending further order of this court,” the court said in its order.

A $500 stipend for low-income residents

The stay is expected to last at least a week. The court asked the county to respond to Paxton’s request for the emergency stay by 4:30 p.m. April 29.

Paxton’s emergency motion to the state’s highest court was aimed at blocking Harris County from distributing the first no-strings-attached $500 monthly stipends to more than 1,900 low-income residents.

“Harris County will violate our Constitution in less than two days,” reads the first line of Paxton’s brief to the high court.

Paxton contends the program violates the Texas Constitution’s prohibition on giving “public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual … whatsoever.” He also argues the county’s use of a lottery violates the state constitution’s equal rights provision.

County officials earlier Tuesday said they intended to proceed with the program unless blocked by the court.

“Ken Paxton has made clear that he wants to work against Harris County families and officials to the very end,” Menefee said in a statement Tuesday morning. “It’s unfortunate, but I plan to keep fighting.”

Menefee expressed pessimism that the county would receive fair treatment from the Supreme Court, citing a Texas Tribune report about a recent speech by Justice John Devine, who argued Harris County “bastardized” elections laws and suggested Democrats would cheat in coming elections.

“At least one Justice on the Texas Supreme Court has made clear he has no intention of giving Harris County a fair shake,” Menefee said. “I hope that the court honestly evaluates the law.”

Charles W. “Rocky” Rhodes, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said the case is being litigated in two arenas: the legal and the political.

“There are legal issues in this case, but that’s not how it’s playing out in the press,” Rhodes said. “Both sides are presenting it as pure politics.”

Rhodes said Devine should recuse himself from the case, and that Menefee should avoid declaring the entire court biased because of the comments of one justice.

Tuesday’s decision is simply a procedural move that preserves the status quo while lower courts hear the merits of the case, Rhodes said. It should not be interpreted as evidence Harris County will lose the case, he added.

Texas Supreme Court to decide fate of Uplift Harris

Commissioners Court met behind closed doors with county attorneys in executive session for about 30 minutes Tuesday morning before deciding to move forward with the program as planned. Because there were no proposed changes or adjustments, the court did not take a vote.

The guaranteed income program, known as Uplift Harris, is aimed at helping low-income households improve their financial position. It is being funded through $20.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The monthly stipend would come with virtually no spending restrictions aside from prohibitions on anything that would harm the safety and security of others, involves criminal activity or supports terrorism.

Of the 1,900 participants, Hidalgo said only 1,600 have submitted eligibility verification.

This article first appeared on the Houston Landing and is republished here with permission.