News Roundup: TCAD Denies Rent Too Damn High

And where are all the voters?

A memorial for victims of the crash on Red River during SXSW in March 2014. Driver Rashad Owens faces trial for capital murder this week.
A memorial for victims of the crash on Red River during SXSW in March 2014. Driver Rashad Owens faces trial for capital murder this week. (Photo by John Anderson)

In this week's news roundup: the trial begins for a man charged with driving into a crowd of people last year at SXSW; 95% of eligible voters elect not to vote; conditional income housing fights for survival against TCAD; and more.

Red River Manslaughter: The trial for Rashad Owens begins this morning in Judge Cliff Brown's Downtown courtroom. Owens, 23, has been charged with capital murder, four counts of murder, and 24 counts of aggravated assault after allegedly crashing into a crowd of people on Red River Street during South by Southwest last March. He's since pled not guilty to each charge. Jury selection was held last week in Brown's courtroom; attorneys on both sides settled on seven women, five men, and two male alternates.

Prosecutors have said that they do not plan to seek the death penalty despite the capital murder charge, and acknowledged the relative unusualness of pursuing a capital charge in such a case (the idea that Owens was drunk, or over the legal limit, while driving his Honda makes the concept of capital murder a bit more murky). Owens, a Killeen resident, has spent the past 19-and-a-half months in the Travis County Jail, where he's been held on $5.5 million bond. – Chase Hoffberger

Democracy Inaction: Early voting for the Nov. 3 election didn't quite hit 5% of registered voters last week, topping out Friday (admittedly under very bad weather) at 27,145 voters, or 4.21 % of roughly 645,000 registered. Election day is Tuesday, with voting locations available on the Travis County Clerk's elections web site. There are seven state constitutional propositions on the ballot – for more information and Chronicle endorsements, see here, and a single Travis County bond proposition, for a new Civil and Family Courts Complex. (See "Point Austin: A Community Obligation".) – Michael King

Unaffordable: The Mueller Foundation and Catellus Developers take their case to the Travis Central Appraisal District Board of Directors Monday morning, hoping to persuade the board that TCAD's reversal of its appraisal treatment of the Mueller neighborhood’s affordable homes would effectively eliminate the Foundation's ability to maintain the program. Current practice keeps 25% of the homes available at below-market prices for qualifying buyers (80% of median family incomes), and restricts those home to 2% appreciation per year, if resold. TCAD, which honored that standard for several years, now says all homes must be appraised at "market rates" – meaning the only limit on skyrocketing valuations is the state-mandated 10% annual homestead exemption limit, which would soon price many current residents out of their homes. Dozens of homeowners face rate hikes this year; a few have already lost appeals. Residents and the Foundation are hoping the program can be saved in collaboration with TCAD. For more on the story, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition. – M.K.

Sue As We Do: Also on the property tax front, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has requested the right to intervene on behalf of state taxpayers and the state constitution in the lawsuit filed by the city of Austin against the Travis Central Appraisal District. The city has challenged TCAD's valuations of commercial properties, believing them undervalued under the current process (and therefore placing a greater burden on residential homeowners). The AG's office has filed a brief asking to intervene, charging that the city is engaging in an "invalid attempt to take control over Texas tax policy from the Legislature," and saying its office is the proper party "to defend the constitutionality of the statues [sic] at issue." In a speech before the members of the Texas [corporate] Taxpayers and Research Association, Paxton called the city's lawsuit a "tax grab through the courts," because disclosure of accurate purchase and sales information (currently forbidden in Texas) "would expose every property owner in Texas to higher property taxes." Paxton thereby inadvertently acknowledged that current appraisals are inaccurate, although the constitution requires accurate appraisals at market values. Paxton also denounced the "never-ending cycle of perpetual litigation" over school finance – although he and his immediate predecessor (Gov. Greg Abbott) have routinely bragged about "coming into work and suing the federal government" over environmental, health care, immigration, and other federal policies they oppose. – M.K

Bergstrom Blues: The Federal Aviation Authority is still evaluating the damage caused by Friday's storm to Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Flights had returned to normal by Sunday: However, flood damage to the Austin Air Traffic Control Tower and Terminal Radar Approach Control was so bad that Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center, which normally only controls high-altitude traffic over Austin, is providing separation for all flights in the area. The FAA has shipped in a portable control tower from Kansas, which should be assembled and handling lower-altitude traffic by Monday. – Richard Whittaker

Closed Palm: Students at Palm Elementary could face a 10-mile commute after the storms wrecked half of their campus. Palm and Perez were the only Austin ISD campuses closed due Friday's rain, but when AISD staff started clean-up on Saturday at Palm, they realized there was severe damage, with some classrooms in the Southeast Austin school under four inches of water. Students will stay home Monday but, starting Tuesday, the school will split. All students will report to Palm in the morning, but then Pre-K-First Grade students, and kids in the preschool programs for children with disabilities, will be transported to the Allan Center (formerly Allan Elementary). Students in grades 2-5 will be taught in the undamaged half of the building. The district will be looking for more sustainable temporary solutions, including possibly moving portables to the campus, while repairs are made. – R.W.

Ted Cruz is Rubber, the Media is Glue: The Republican party has thrown a conniption fit after hosts of last Thursday's CNBC's presidential debate dared to ask awkward questions. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus fumed that it was a "crap sandwich" and ended the partnership with NBC for the February debate. The campaign for Texas' remaining White House hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was so angry that it declared war on the liberal media, and sent out a fundraising email, citing the dismal quality of questions: "'Are you a comic-book villain?' 'Can you do math?' 'Will you insult two people over here?' 'Why don't you resign?' 'Why have your numbers fallen?'"

Actually, the missive was not quoting anyone at CNBC, but instead taking words verbatim from … Sen. Ted Cruz.

According to CNBC's transcript, Cruz was not quoting hosts Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, and John Harwood. Instead, he said those words while accusing them of playing hard ball with the Republicans on stage. He said, "This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions: Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don't you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?" In hindsight, all reasonable questions. – R.W.

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