Paxton asks Texas's high court for 'emergency' action on poverty relief program

In his campaign to block a Houston-area guaranteed basic income program, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) is betting that third time’s the charm.

On Tuesday, Paxton’s office filed an emergency petition to the Supreme Court of Texas, calling on justices to block Harris County’s basic income program, Uplift Harris. 

“Harris County officials cannot continue to abuse their power and the people’s money to score political points, and we will fight every step of the way to hold them accountable,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

County attorney Christian Menefee (D) shot back that “Ken Paxton has made it clear that he wants to work against Harris County families and officials to the very end. It’s unfortunate, but I plan to keep fighting.”

Paxton’s push to block the program has been rejected in past weeks by both district and appellate courts. 

If Paxton’s measure fails, Uplift Harris will begin sending out $500 monthly checks to nearly 2,000 residents in two days — a time window which Paxton argues constitutes an emergency.

“Harris County will violate our Constitution in less than two days,” his office wrote in a filing that seeks to block the measure before it can go into effect. 

Otherwise, Paxton argued, the state fight against the measure will likely drag on for longer than the 18-month pilot itself. “And once the payments are made, the funds will not be recoverable.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Paxton argued that the plan violates the Texas Constitution, which his office claims “prohibits this kind of free-money transfer absent an express constitutional exception … even for a laudable cause like poverty relief.”

In his series of filings, Paxton argued that the money is no-strings-attached, and therefore unconstitutional. Harris County has countered that there are significant strings attached: recipients must be at certain low-income levels, live in certain high-poverty counties and can’t use the money on illegal conduct — an argument that Texas judges have thus far upheld.

Despite the use by Paxton ally President Trump of similar basic income strategies during the Covid-19 pandemic, Paxton’s weeks-long campaign against the measure has carried strong overtones of the culture war. 

In previous filings, he has called it “The Harris Handout” and “a socialist experiment by [County Judge] Lina Hidalgo and the progressive [D]emocrats responsible for the Harris County disaster.”

In an initial filing, he also implied that the basic income plan represented an electoral quid pro quo. His office wrote that the suit was intended to make sure “that public funds are properly expended and not doled out as door prizes at the voting booth.”

While Paxton did not spell out in his filing what constituted the “disaster”, the attorney general has long claimed that Harris County was a hotbed of voter fraud. In 2020, Paxton blocked Harris County from sending out millions of mail-in ballot applications to area voters — a step he told former Trump advisor Steve Bannon had kept Texas from going over to Biden.

Paxton’s language in these filings also echoed election denial claims made by a sitting member of the court who will now help adjudicate Paxton’s filing. 

In a December speech, Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine  argued, without evidence, that there had been widespread voter fraud in Harris County in the 2020 presidential election.

Saying those elections had put in place “a corrupted government on a federal level run by a criminal enterprise,” Devine charged that Harris County’s reforms to voting measures during the Covid-19 pandemic were “an excuse to change election laws … so that the Democrats could cheat in Harris County.”

“This was a complete and total disaster,” Devine added. “This was completely bastardized right before everyone’s nose.”

Devine implied to the crowd that 2020 was prologue: Democrats were going to cheat in Harris County in 2024. 

“Do you really think the Democrats are going to roll over and let Trump be president again? You think they’re just going to go away, all of a sudden find Jesus and [there will] be an honest election? I don’t think so.”

In a statement at the time, Menefee called these statements “shockingly inappropriate” given that the perennial litigation between state and county means that Harris County “has been and will continue to be before his court,” The Texas Tribune reported.

Menefee added that he hoped “Justice Devine acts with integrity and recuses himself from Harris County cases moving forward, but given his concession that he views himself as aiding Republicans in a ‘fight’ against Democrats, I won’t hold my breath.”

The Hill has reached out to Devine. As of press time, the justice had not recused himself from the case. 

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