In Focus

Texas taxpayers paid $16.5 million for TVs in Houston, Dallas sports arenas

Thursday, February 14, 2013

There's no question All-Star weekend will bring in millions of tax dollars. But huge chunks of that money will never end up in your schools, parks or hospitals. In fact, it's going back to the people who put on the party, and that's not sitting well with a couple of lawmakers.

This weekend, the eyes of the basketball world turn to Houston. Thousands of fans, with cash in hand, are arriving in the Bayou City, hoping to catch a glimpse of basketball royalty. And the team behind this basketball bash says it will bring in millions to the local economy.

So what is it we found about this All-Star extravaganza that's made a lawmaker say this:

"I love sports, but sports owners and the leagues are some of the greediest people you will find. And they will take and take and take and take," Houston State Sen. Dan Patrick said.

"I love this game. I've been playing it since I was 5," NBA fan Isaac White said.

On a public playground, White is head and shoulders above. And he dreams of seeing his name in lights across the street at the Toyota Center.

"See myself on the big screen? It would be a blessing, it would be amazing," White said.

What may be amazing is that while he dreams, his money will likely pay for that $8 million high-tech HD, state-of-the-art, best-in-the-business, big screen TV that's hanging in the middle of Toyota Center. It was installed in order to attract the All-Star game to Houston.

Yes, public money -- your money -- is paying for that screen. And it's happened before, just in time for Dallas' 2010 NBA All-Star game. After digging through state documents, we found a bill for the new big screen scoreboard at American Airlines Center totaling nearly $8.2 million.

"If everyday Houstonians knew they were spending $16.5 million on big screens for billionaires, what would they say?" we asked Patrick.

"I think they would be angry, and I think they would say, 'How does this happen?'" he replied.

The thing is every dollar of this spending is perfectly legal. It's all happened before and we wanted to know how could it happen again. So we went to the state capital to talk to lawmakers who wrote the rules on this deal -- the ones who are supposed to make sure your money is spent the right way.

"I blame people who take advantage of loopholes in the law to benefit themselves," Patrick said.

Texans like big events, so decades ago, Texas lawmakers created a fund to help bring them here. The idea is to set aside tax money an event creates and help cities pay the costs of putting the event on.

At first, it was used for overtime for police officers, signage and small stadium improvements. That all sounds reasonable. But over time, the contracts became a wish list for arena upgrades like shoe shine stands, upgraded bars, digital gaming walls.

And so long as the NBA asked, Texas paid.

"How does it happen?" we asked Patrick.

"Things aren't done in the open the way they ought to be done," Patrick said.

By 2010, when the game went to Dallas, Texas tax money was buying that big screen.

"It's time to reform that, probably well past time," Austin State Sen. Kirk Watson said.

But it's likely too late to stop you from paying for Houston's big screen. Rockets CEO and Houston Host Committee president Tad Brown Committee says he needed it.

"Everything that we've done has been according to what needs to be done to be able to get an event like this," Brown said.

"If the owner of the Rockets or the owner of the Mavericks wanted to have a Jumbotron in their arena, let them pay for it," Patrick said.

"If it comes to a point where the state or the lawmakers believe it's no longer worth being able to attack a Super Bowl or an All-Star game -- if they think the tradeoff isn't worth it anymore -- then they'll pass a new policy and we'll follow those," Brown said.

Without the All-Star tax dollars, the Rockets and their billionaire owner have to pay for the big screen on their own. But when the All-Star game comes to town and the big screen gets thrown in the deal, the Rockets get Texas to pay, just as Dallas did.

It all came at a time when schools were facing billions in cuts, health care costs were being squeezed and the budget was getting cut for the very parks where White loves to play this simple game.

"I don't know about $8 million. That's a lot of money," White said.

Neither lawmaker knew Texas tax dollars were buying big screens for billionaires before we found it the records and shared it with them. Now they say they want to change that.

(Copyright ©2014 KTRK-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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