Harris County weighs the use of federal funds to circumvent Texas’ recently passed anti-abortion law

The memo, requested by Judge Lina Hidalgo, was fiercely criticized by Republican officials and conservative activists.

Harris County Commissioners Court on June 29, 2021.
Harris County Commissioners Court on June 29, 2021.

Harris County leaders are considering ways to help women obtain abortions in contravention to the state's recently adopted anti-abortion law, Senate Bill 8, which prohibits abortions as early as six weeks after conception.

Back in September, shortly after SB 8 took effect, Judge Lina Hidalgo asked the Commissioners Court Analyst's Office to prepare a memo on how to help people affected by the law. The office transmitted that memo to Commissioners Court today.

The memo argues that the county could provide financial support to organizations for abortion-related costs, such as transportation to and from clinics, as well as paying for childcare and lodging for those seeking an abortion outside of Texas.

While current state law — Senate Bill 22, passed in 2019 — prohibits the spending of state or local tax dollars to facilitate abortions, the memo argues that the county may be able to use federal funds for these purposes, specifically money from the Federal Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund received under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Judge Hidalgo stressed that the court is taking no action at this time, simply receiving the memo. "It is not a proposal that is in front of Commissioners Court," Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo used the occasion, however, to condemn SB 8, particularly its provision allowing private citizens to sue anyone aiding or abetting the performance of an abortion in violation of the law. SB 8 allows courts to award plaintiffs up to $10,000 in damages in successful lawsuits.

"It has a provision in it, the vigilante provision, that basically encourages anybody to chase after, stalk women who are seeking an abortion, whether it's for rape or incest or whatever it is, and sue the taxi driver [taking the person to the clinic], or whoever it is, so that they can collect," Hidalgo said.

The memo, and Hidalgo's comments, drew a strong negative reaction from the Republican commissioners as well as from several members of the public who came to testify.

Republican State Representative Briscoe Cain, who spoke before Hidalgo, urged the county not to act on the recommendations of the memo, saying that to do so would violate the Texas State Constitution.

"The question is not whether the law prohibits this," Cain said. "The question is whether the Constitution or the laws of the State of Texas authorize it. Article 5, Section 18(b) of the Texas Constitution states that commissioner courts shall exercise such powers and jurisdiction over all county business as is conferred by the Constitution and laws of this state."

In other words, Cain argued, because the law did not authorize counties to spend federal money on abortion support services, they are forbidden to do so.

In response to Hidalgo's statement that the court was only receiving the memo, not acting on its recommendations, Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey responded, "I believe the concern was related to the recommendations, and obviously, is this a precursor to future agenda items?"

Ramsey argued that some people would be concerned by the use of COVID relief funding to aid abortions, "money that was meant to be spent to save lives, to be used to take lives."

Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle was more strident in his objections. He noted that the memo was prepared at Judge Hidalgo's request. "Here we go again," Cagle said. "Anyone who has the audacity to disagree with your position is accused of politics, when this is ribald politics itself. It is a transmittal, but it is a travesty that here we are in Harris County trying to circumvent state law."

Cagle admitted there was no way to vote against the transmittal of a report, but that he would if he could. "Because as we all know," Cagle said, "the report comes first, and then the action comes later."

The conservative nonprofit Texas Values helped author SB 8. The group's policy director, Jonathan Covey, told the commissioners that, "I know this is only a transmittal we're talking about, but transmittals lead to proposals and lead to action.”

Also speaking against the memo was Rebecca Parma, senior legislative associate at the anti-abortion nonprofit Texas Right To Life. Parma said that, when the state passed SB 8, it simultaneously increased funding to the "Alternatives to Abortion Program" at the state Health and Human Services Department. "This is the kind of life-affirming options the county should be promoting, to actually help women and their children and their families," Parma said.

No public speakers came forward to defend the memo's recommendations.