Austin Sen. Kirk Watson said he wants to infuse some “healthy skepticism” into oversight of a state incentive fund that is used to recruit major events such as Super Bowls, All-Star games and Formula One racing to Texas.
To do so, Watson has filed legislation that would force Comptroller Susan Combs to share authority over the Major Events Trust Fund with at least two others: the state auditor and a representative of the host city or county.
Senate Bill 765 also would cap at 5 percent the cost of infrastructure improvements that taxpayers would pay for, if the owner of the venue gets a long-term benefit from the improvements. That provision was prompted by reports that more than $8 million in taxpayer money was used for a new scoreboard to attract the NBA All-Star game to Houston this year.
A similar video scoreboard also was purchased when the NBA All-Star game came to Dallas three years ago. In both cases, the scoreboard remains in the venue after the event.
“It doesn’t seem fair to me that the taxpayers get the benefit of the initial event,” Watson said, “but the owner gets the benefit of having the taxpayers buy them a very important fixture.”
In Austin, Combs approved payment of $29.3 million from the trust fund to organizers of November’s Formula One race to cover expenses related to hosting the U.S. Grand Prix on Nov. 16-18. The money was for expenses such as traffic management, temporary grandstands, other seating and a sanctioning fee to Formula One Management to host the race.
The amount of the payment is Combs’ estimate of the additional tax revenues generated by the event.
The Circuit of the Americas is expected to tap the fund for next year’s race and already has plans to seek $5 million from a similar state account for four smaller race events at the track.
Watson said he supports using incentives for economic development such as the Formula One race, but he said he has questioned Combs’ oversight of the fund.
“I think, to some degree, over the past couple of years there has been less scrutiny of how things ought to play out and more boosterism than there perhaps should be,” he said. “My hope is in the future we can rein that in.”
Combs was criticized in some quarters for writing a letter that seemed to promise Formula One race organizers $25 million for each of 10 years, but Combs denied it was binding. She has said she was only showing support for the concept.
On Monday, Combs’ spokesman R.J. DeSiliva emailed a response to Watson’s legislation.
“We strictly administer what the Legislature has set in statute,” he wrote. “If the Legislature makes any changes to current law, we would administer those changes.”
Watson compared the $8 million video scoreboards to his efforts to state aid for the damage caused by the 2011 Bastrop County wildfires.
“Here I am up here working like crazy to get $7.25 million to help rebuild Bastrop County after what some have said is the worst wildfire is the history of our state,” Watson said. “And yet the state is giving over $8 million for a scoreboard.”