Texas comptroller avoids answering questions about state's sports arena spending

April 2, 2013 9:05:23 PM PDT
There's an update now to an exclusive 13 Eyewitness News investigation that exposed public tax dollars being used to pay for lavish improvements in sports arenas.

Tax money bought an $8 million Jumbotron in Dallas, and a state-of-the-art big screen at Toyota Center could be next. So we headed to Austin to get answers from the woman who signs off on the payments.

"Transparency forces government to be smarter about how it spends the taxpayers' money," Texas Comptroller Susan Combs says in a YouTube video.

She's the person you elected to oversee Texas' checkbook.

"I love this phrase, 'You should only spend what you can defend,'" Combs says in the video.

So we went to Austin and asked her to defend spending millions of your tax dollars to upgrade Texas sports arenas -- most recently millions to spruce up Toyota Center for the NBA All-Star game in February.

"We're actually late for a meeting," an aide for Combs told us when we tried to approach them.

"It doesn't start (for 20 minutes,)" we said.

We'd requested interviews with Combs in writing six times since February 8, and even more over the phone. Each time her office refused.

Combs oversees the state program that sets aside tax dollars generated by big events to pay for things like those big screens for billionaires. We'd interviewed everyone connected with the million-dollar expenses except her -- and she signs off on the payments.

"How do you justify the spending of millions on big screens for basketball arenas in the trust fund?" we asked Combs and her aide.

"Excuse me guys, we're actually late for a meeting," her aide replied.

"Millions on what? I don't know what you're talking about," Combs then says.

"You met with Sen. Watson about it just two weeks ago," we told Combs.

"Not about millions on...," she said as she kept walking.

A few weeks earlier, she'd met with State Sen. Kirk Watson, who after seeing our investigation, filed a bill to curtail the spending. Instead of refreshing her memory, or championing transparency, Combs kept walking.

"So what about financial transparency for the rest of us when it comes to your spending? Madame Comptroller, can we talk to you about that?" we asked Combs.

"I love transparency," she said.

"I know you love transparency, but can we have some here on our question?" we asked.

"This is just part of the favor factory we see in government now. This is a chance to interact with billionaires. She's just not going to say no to that class," former government accountant Richard Viktorin said.

Viktorin is the head of an Austin advocacy group trying to expose wasteful spending. He says this program has simply become too hard to control.

"It is shorn of checks and balances and accountability," Viktorin said.

Viktorin tells once a big event commits to Texas and puts the deal in a contract - it's awfully tough for the comptroller to turn down big ticket items.

"Can she say no?" we asked Viktorin.

"No," he said.

"You don't think the law allows her to say no?" we asked.

"No," he said.

"And that's likely on purpose?"

"Yes."

The comptroller's office denies that, insisting her staff approves all expenses.

Three years, ago she approved that big screen for a Dallas arena. She'll soon decide on the $8 million screen for Houston. But since the program was created decades ago, parts of the law that would open this up and protect your money have been stripped away. Originally, things like a scoreboard weren't allowed in the program. Now they are.

At one point the governor had to sign off, but not anymore.

"Is there anything a Texan can do to stop it?" we asked Viktorin.

"No," he said.

But the comptroller never told us that. Remember she's the one who loves that phrase.

"You should only spend what you can defend," Combs says in that YouTube video.

That would be great.

There's a hearing Wednesday morning on a bill that would outlaw most of the spending we're talking about. Combs isn't expected to attend the hearing, but we'd love to talk to her any time she can make time for us.
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