The COVID-19 pandemic instigated a resurgence of government-funded income subsidies in the form of stimulus checks to hundreds of millions of Americans. But these programs were short-lived and didn’t have the long-term impact of other universal basic income programs. Some localities in the aftermath of the pandemic have started offering guaranteed income programs, which are under fire by Republicans who call them government handouts.
One such Texas-based program, Uplift Harris, which launched in January, received more than 76,000 applications from Harris County residents, according to the Houston Chronicle, but one state senator abhors the program that would send $500 a month to the locality’s poorest residents for 18 months that they can use toward basic needs including rent, groceries, transportation, housing, utilities, and health care.
He argues that the Harris County income plan violates the Texas Constitution’s “gift prohibition” clause, which says the state legislature cannot authorize any “county, city, town, or other political subdivision of the state” to grant public money to any individual, according to a letter he sent to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in mid-January.
Meanwhile, Bettencourt sponsored the Texas Senate’s $5.3 billion expansion of the state’s homestead exemption (the amount of a home’s value that can’t be taxed to pay for public schools) from $40,000 to $100,000 last summer. This bill was part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s grand $18 billion tax cut for Texas property owners, which was the largest property tax cut bill in the state’s history.
“TAXPAYERS WIN! All residential and commercial real property taxpayers WIN!” Bettencourt wrote in a July 2023 statement. “5.72 million Texas homesteaders WIN! With an eye-popping average 41.5% savings of $1,373 year after year! It’s a record property tax cut totaling $18 billion dollars.”
The new exemption would save Texas homeowners an average of $1,300 a year in property taxes, according to the statement. It’s part of a long-running general theme in American economic policy that housing and the energy sector get huge subsidies, both in Texas and nationwide, meaning that popcorn, as Bettencourt would put it, is often in the eye of the beholder.
Other guaranteed income programs in Texas
Other Texas localities have introduced similar programs offering guaranteed income to low-income families. Austin, for example, has a guaranteed income program that gives $1,000 a month to such families—and an Urban Institute report shows that a majority of recipients spent the money on housing. But Bettencourt argues that likening the Uplift Harris program to Austin’s program is like comparing “apples to oranges” because it’s being introduced on a county-level instead of a city-level.
“Counties are not home rule cities in Texas,” he told Fortune in a statement. “They cannot create new laws without [the] state granting them authority. As the local government chair, I asked two simple questions: Does Harris County have the authority to implement Uplift Harris, and does a no-strings-attached program violate the Texas Constitution ‘gift’ clause.”
Plus, not all families who applied for the program would get accepted.
“This is $20 million for only 1,900 families,” he said. “Who picks the lucky few winners?”
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, however, shot down Bettencourt’s request to the state attorney general, by also sending a brief to Paxton. He argues that the Harris County pilot program is permitted by the Texas Constitution and authorized by at “least three statutes.” He even urges the state attorney general to ignore Bettencourt’s request on the account of there being pending litigation regarding the program. The attorney general is currently litigating “fundamental questions underlying the request in the Texas Supreme Court,” according to Menefee’s letter.
Political underpinnings of universal basic income programs
While universal basic income programs have the power to uplift some of the nation’s poorest residents, they’re not widely popular. Indeed, a majority (54%) of U.S. adults say they would oppose the federal government providing guaranteed income, according to Pew Research Center.
This same Pew study found that offering universal basic income for all adult citizens “draws broad and intense opposition” among Republicans, but Democrats more generally support it. Far fewer older adults or white Americans support these types of programs, whereas 67% of adults under age 30 approve of them. Nearly 75% of Black Americans and more than 60% of Hispanic adults support the funding, compared with 35% of white adults, according to Pew.
However, UBI has historically been endorsed by conservative figures including economist Milton Friedman, former President Richard Nixon, and even more recently conservative Senators Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney as well as Congressman Paul Ryan proposed welfare policies that are “very close to UBI,” according to a 2022 study by Emory University Ph.D. candidate Eddy S. F. Yeung. That’s because UBI—a seemingly liberal policy—actually conforms to conservative ideology, as these programs reduce “bureaucracy and [limit] government by replacing administratively costly welfare programs,” he wrote, and they fit the “conservative ideal of laissez-faire and individualism.”
“UBI replaces other existing welfare programs that typically require more targeting efforts,” Yeung wrote. “Thus, it contrasts with other large-scale, means-tested welfare policies” like public housing and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which “typically receive meager support from conservatives due to their opposition to big government.”
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