Harris County

State Senator Paul Bettencourt challenges legality of Harris County’s guaranteed income pilot program

Bettencourt has asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for a pair of opinions declaring Uplift Harris is unconstitutional.

Paul Bettencourt speaks in the Texas Senate chamber
AP Photo/Eric Gay
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

State Senator Paul Bettencourt is asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to rule Harris County's pilot guaranteed income program unconstitutional. The move comes as the program, Uplift Harris, has already been inundated with applications for all available slots.

Senator Bettencourt sent a letter to Attorney General Paxton on Friday, January 12, the day Uplift Harris began taking applications. He asked for legal opinions opinions on two questions: First, do counties have the authority to enact a guaranteed income program?

"The county in Texas is an extension of the state," Bettencourt said, explaining his reasoning. "They are not a Home Rule city. They cannot create new law themselves. And I don't see anywhere since I've been in office that the state has granted them authority to have a program like Uplift Harris."

Second, Bettencourt asked, would such a policy would violate the gift prohibition clause of the Texas Constitution? "That clause is very clear that you can't just effectively give money away from the state or, in my opinion, from the county to programs like this," Bettencourt said.

Uplift Harris is funded with $20.5 million in COVID relief assistance from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), not from state or local tax dollars. Bettencourt said this makes little difference.

"What happens when that money runs out?" he asked. "Who is going to continue this program? And more importantly, there's a lot of fundamental, basic questions about this program. Why certain Zip codes only? Who's picking the lucky 1,900 winners, versus everyone else that's technically a loser by definition?"

Uplift Harris is aimed at residents of the ten highest-poverty Zip codes in Harris County. Harris County Public Health, which is set to administer the program, said it had received over 48,000 applications for just over 1,900 available slots in Uplift Harris as of Monday. The program is scheduled to continue taking applications until midnight, February 2. Those selected thereafter by a random lottery would receive $500 a month in guaranteed income for 18 months – if the program is allowed to stand.

"I don't think it's a policy, personally, that the state or the counties can afford, because of its expense, and quite frankly, when it's no strings attached, I really believe it's socialism," Bettencourt said.

If the attorney general agrees with Bettencourt, the county will either have to discontinue the program or fight for its survival in court. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, who would have to defend the policy, was not available for an interview.