In Focus

Arena spending bill tweaked before final passage

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The NBA finals have just started, and it wasn't that long ago that the NBA's best were playing in Houston in the All-Star game. That's when the use of your tax dollars to lure big sporting events to Texas came under fire.

When we found the taxpayer-funded big screens and fancy bars and TVs and millions of tax dollars spent on arena upgrades, the outrage was obvious.

"Sports owners and the leagues are some of the greediest people you will ever find and they will take and take and take and take," State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) said.

The state's major events trust fund was designed to help lure big sporting events to Texas, like the All-Star game or the Super Bowl.

Early on, it was used to pay back cities for overtime and trash pickup. But without anyone looking, it evolved into a wish list of big ticket dreams for team owners and event organizers.

The most glaring example was a tax dollar-funded $8 million Jumbotron for an arena in Dallas and the Houston plan to do the same for the Toyota Center.

Eight days after our first investigation, lawmakers were teaming up to ban the practice and the bill flew through the Texas Senate.

But then something happened when it got to the House. The people who bring these events to Texas fired back, saying the money was needed. That, despite the fact few other states even come close to giving away what Texas does.

"This should have been a no brainer," Patrick said.

The first thing to go was the audit. That's the plan figure out where your money went, and now it's gone.

"The taxpayers of Texas lost. Politicians who want to shield their activities won," State Sen. Wendy Davis (R-Fort Worth) said.

The ban on spending tax money on things like multi-million dollar Jumbotron was gone too.

"It went to the House, and it pretty was much gutted," Patrick said.

"I don't think we gutted the bill at all," State Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Spring) said. "If the bill had died, that would have been a travesty."

Isaac took charge of the bill in the House and he thinks he made it stronger.

"You're not ashamed of this at all?" we asked him.

"No," he said.

Isaac says the audit would've cost too much and big screen bans could force events to other states. Isaac claims his changes put more documents online to help you watch where your money is spent, and new rules will make sure the tax dollar payouts match the tax dollars that come in.

But if they do match, your money can still be spent on Jumbotrons and shoe shine stands and TVs for elevator lobbies.

"From the expenses that I have seen, I think it's been a very good return on our investment," Isaac said.

Isaac's version won the day and his bill now awaits the governor's signature.

"We have to remember this is taxpayer money," Davis said.

The request for the $8 million Houston big screen, by the way, has still not been submitted but now faces no legal opposition.
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