The new state law banning abortions after the stage at which a fetal pulse is detectable took effect on September 1 of this year. Two weeks later, Harris County commissioners voted 3-2 on party lines to approve a resolution from Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) directing the county analyst’s office to investigate opportunities to “mitigate the law’s negative effects.”
On Tuesday, senior analyst Amy Rose submitted a memo to commissioners that outlined possibilities for using both county and federal funds to support abortions after fetal heartbeat.
Noting that another Texas law prohibits political subdivisions from using taxpayer dollars to fund abortion providers and affiliates, the memo suggests that the restriction does not apply to federal funds. Consequently, the county might be able to use Federal Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CLFRF) awarded under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to pay directly for abortions.
In addition, the memo argues that there is no restriction on using local and federal taxpayer dollars to provide ancillary services such as transportation to abortion clinics, lodging, and childcare.
State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) attended Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting to address the legality of using federal funds for abortion initiatives.
“The question is not whether law prohibits this, the question is whether the Constitution or the laws of the state of Texas authorize it.”
Citing the Texas Constitution and legal precedents, Cain argued that commissioners courts did not have the authority to use taxpayer dollars in that way. He also noted that there is a lawsuit pending against the City of Austin for a similar program, and suggested that any attempt to facilitate banned abortions would be in violation of the “aiding and abetting” of abortions targeted by the Heartbeat Act.
After Cain’s comments, Hidalgo protested that the memo was merely a transmittal and that there was not an actual proposal to move forward on the agenda Tuesday.
“With campaign season, this kind of accusation, misleading statement, is only the first of many,” said Hidalgo.
Defending the memo, Hidalgo said the Texas Heartbeat Act would promote a culture of vigilantism, and the county was looking to support women seeking an abortion.
“I believe the concern was related to the recommendations,” replied Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3). “Is this a precursor to future agenda items?”
“I think you need to understand why people would be concerned…using COVID money, money that was meant to be spent to save lives being used to take lives,” said Ramsey.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct.4) pushed back vigorously on Hidalgo’s dismissal of community concerns as merely politics. After reading the agenda item, Cagle said, “Here we go again, anybody that has the audacity to disagree with your position gets 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,” added Cagle. “We all know the report comes first but the action comes later. I can’t vote against a transmittal, but I would if I could.”
Others who appeared before the commissioners court to oppose county abortion funding included Jonathan Covey of Texas Values and Rebecca Parma of Texas Right to Life.
Covey said that the Texas Heartbeat Act has already saved 15,000 lives. “It’s been to the U.S. Supreme Court twice and has prevailed twice over the last four months.”
“If you truly want to help women who are pregnant direct them to the alternatives to abortion care program passed by the State of Texas where they appropriated over $100 million to help women find shelter and to hold onto their babies and keep their babies.”
“This is naked political posturing, and we ask you to reject it,” said Covey.
Harris County expects to receive a total of $915 million in CLFRF monies. The county has developed an equity framework for spending the funds and has funded a wide array of programs ranging from vaccine distribution and outreach to rental assistance.
According to the analyst’s report, CLFRF funds are not subject to the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal expenditures for abortion. Spending the funds on abortion services would need to meet the CLFRF’s stated standard for “addressing health disparities and social determinants of health.”
For calendar year 2020, there were a reported 55,175 abortions in Texas. The majority of those having abortions were Hispanic women, accounting for 37 percent. Another 30 percent of abortions were performed on Black women, and 27 percent on white women.
In addition to directly funding abortions through federal taxpayer funds or ancillary services through local taxpayer funds, the county’s analysts suggest that the county could also advertise to promote websites offering abortion assistance or even create its own website to direct women to abortion services and support.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.