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Texas This Week: The State of Texas v. the City of Austin

Chuck Lindell with the Austin American-Statesman joined KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to discuss the latest lawsuit filed by the State against the City.

AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott blasted President Joe Biden about border security, and the State of Texas is battling the City of Austin yet again. 

Three things to know in Texas politics

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to Mission, Texas, located on the Texas-Mexico border. He criticized President Joe Biden, saying the Democrat's policies are making the humanitarian crisis at the border worse. 

Abbott said while securing the border is the federal government's responsibility, the State will continue to use its resources at the border to keep Texans safe.

RELATED: Gov. Abbott blames Biden for 'surge' in migrants at Texas-Mexico border

In an extremely rare move, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined in on a Senate committee hearing Thursday. This is only the second time he's done so since being elected president of the Senate. 

Patrick wanted to question the new chair of the Public Utility Commission (PUC) about the commission's decision not to reverse billions of dollars of electricity charges from Winter Storm Uri. The exchange was tense.

"You told me on Tuesday it was a mistake. And you agreed with me when I said we need to correct this. Did you tell me the truth or not tell me the truth when you talked to me?" Patrick asked.

"Sir, there's no way that I agreed with you that we needed to correct this. There's no way I would've done that. This whole thing is because I don't agree with you that we need to correct it. It's why it generated a letter from every senator but three. If I agreed with you, I would not be suffering this pain right now, right? I wouldn't have had to go through this. It would be easy if I agreed with you. I don't, I'm sorry," PUC Chair Arthur D'Andrea said. "I just disagree that I have the authority to change this, and I don't think it helps consumers."

Click here to watch the hearing. Patrick joins at around 4:54:36.

RELATED: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spars with last remaining Public Utility Commission member over readjusting energy prices during winter storm

At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Texas' mask mandate was lifted. That means Texans aren't required to wear face masks in public – unless they're in a handful of Central Texas cities that opted to keep their health authority's rules, including wearing face masks. 

The effort was led by Austin and Travis County, but other jurisdictions quickly adopted the same policy. That led to a threat of a lawsuit from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton if the rules weren't rescinded. Neither jurisdiction budged, so Paxton filed a lawsuit Thursday.

Chuck Lindell breaks down mask lawsuit

Austin American-Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell joined KVUE Political Anchor Ashley Goudeau to discuss the latest lawsuit filed by the State against the City.

Ashley Goudeau: Tell us a little bit – first and foremost, not really surprising to you, you've been covering politics for a long time, to see the State suing Austin yet again. Right? 

Chuck Lindell: "It's happened before. It's probably going to happen again, yes."

Goudeau: This lawsuit, if you listen to both sides, it seemed as though they were kind of getting caught up in semantics as far as who had the right to do what.  

Lindell: "Well, that's your typical legal battle, isn't it? You know, Gov. Abbott last week rescinded his executive orders that put occupancy limits on businesses and ended his mask mandate. And that took effect Wednesday, just this last week. And the day before that took effect, Austin and Travis County announced that they're still going to enforce their mask mandates. And that's what led to the legal battle that's still going on."

Goudeau: I thought it was interesting because I talked with some City staffers who say they thought that, under the Texas Health and Safety Code, that they could still do this. There's a chapter in the code. So, their argument was, 'We're not doing a local ordinance or a local rule. We're just following what the health authority says, which is what we are allowed to do.' But tell us what the governor's argument is.

Lindell: "Well, it's – they're citing dueling parts of state law. The governor: the governor's authority under a declared disaster due to the pandemic. And that gives him disaster authority to waive state laws, make requirements like the mask mandate that no longer's in effect. And that state law also states that what the governor orders supersedes any contrary rules that cities, counties, school districts put in place. So, you're right, the governor, Attorney General Ken Paxton, says that the governor's authority holds and that local authorities can't make these kind of rules. 

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown agree with that. They say, 'Yeah, we're not enforcing the rules. Dr. Mark Escott, who sets the – you know, the health authority for the local areas – we're following his guidelines and his recommendations and his authority under state law.' And that's what's going to probably be decided by the judge when this case gets its day in court."

RELATED: District judge denies Ken Paxton's temporary restraining order on Austin-area mask mandates

Goudeau: On Friday, this had a bit of a day in court. There was a temporary restraining order that was heard. Tell us what happened in court Friday.  

Lindell:  "Well, the judge convenes the hearing, Judge Laura Livingston, the judge from Travis County. [The] AG's office asked for a temporary restraining order saying, 'Right now, let's stop Austin and Travis County from being able to enforce this.' The judge said, 'You just filed this lawsuit yesterday afternoon. I just got the City and County's response and a legal brief right before this hearing started.' 'I haven't even read it yet,' she says. So, the bottom line is the judge declined to issue the temporary restraining order requested by the AG's office, said, 'We need to have a full hearing on this and everyone needs to have time to brief this and come up with all their legal arguments instead of rushing stuff into print and dumping it into my courtroom. We're going to wait for two weeks. The mask mandate can be enforced in the meantime. And we're going to have a full hearing on this with witnesses, with evidence, with proper legal arguments.' 

And on that day in two weeks, the judge said she will issue a ruling, which is relatively fast in legal terms. But she recognizes, or said she recognizes, that there's some weighty issues at play here."

Goudeau: Is there any action that the attorney general can take in the meantime, in these two weeks?

Lindell: "I'm trying to figure that out. I've been told that TRO [temporary restraining order] decisions are not reviewable. There's no court reporter even to take a minute, to take down what happened to send to an appeals court. So, the AG's lawyers agreed to the time schedule set up by the judge. They wanted a hearing on Friday. They wanted that hearing to take place immediately. The judge said [it was] not fair to the defendants, the City and County, because they obviously were up all night writing their legal brief that appeared that morning, less than 24 hours turnaround on a weighty matter like this. The judge said, 'We're not going forward yet on that.'"

RELATED: Texas This Week: The politics behind Gov. Greg Abbott's latest executive order

Goudeau: Chuck, I really want to ask you though, this whole act of – not necessarily reopening businesses at 100% because I think that's a separate issue – but the order of lifting the mask mandate. How heavy of a hand did politics play into this decision? 

Lindell: "Politics plays a heavy hand in every decision that these leaders make. Politics is the art of compromise, of making decisions happen. You know, Gov. Abbott was under extensive pressure from the right flank of the Republican Party to get rid of his mask mandates, to get rid of capacity limits on business that were hurting individual, not only business owners but employees who weren't getting the paycheck that they used to get, if at all. 

Democrats were pressing the governor for tighter restrictions, saying he was too timid. You know, our local leaders in Austin, Travis County, are Democrats. You know, politics, I'm sure, played a part in their decision as well as the, you know, their desire to keep people safe, improve safety, to limit the opportunity to spread COVID-19."

The Last Word

This week, Ashley addresses the lifting of Texas' mask mandate with a simple message: just because you can doesn't mean you should.


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