Texas' bookkeeper defends sports arena expenses for All-Star events

February 15, 2013 4:33:40 PM PST
Texas sports teams are using events like the NBA All-Star game to get taxpayers to foot the bill for massive stadium upgrades. So who's responsible for this All-Star tax giveaway?

The people putting on the party this weekend commissioned a study to see how much money All -tar weekend brings in to Houston. It's likely you'll pay for that study, too, but it showed a $13 million tax spike connected to the All-Star events. Some of it will go to the city of Houston. in this case, most of it will go to the NBA Host Committee, and they'll spend the bulk of it on $8 million worth of arena improvements.

NBA All-Star weekend is a big money affair. The biggest stars are throwing huge parties. Thousands of fans are spending thousands of dollars a piece. Every transaction is pouring tax dollars in to state and local coffers.

"We know how to do sporting events. We do them over and over again and they're coming back," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

But we've discovered that Texas is giving most of that money away -- almost as fast as it comes in. Millions of dollars are being spent to reimburse local organizers and the city of Houston for what they call necessary All-Star expenses.

The biggest money is likely $8 million to buy a new state-of-the-art Jumbotron scoreboard for Toyota Center. It's a huge arena upgrade that the Rockets would normally pay for themselves. But now can pass on to you, thanks to a special fund set up to attract big events like the All-Star game.

"That's not what these dollars are for. To me, someone is pushing the envelope on this," Houston State Sen. Dan Patrick said. "I am now going to look into this. I was not aware that this was being done."

"How much are we paying on a big screen?" we asked Parker.

"I don't know the answer of that off the top of my head," she said.

Parker, who pledged her support for state funding but didn't review the specific spending, thinks it's a good idea, a way to attract more big games to town.

"Am I offended that we're going to spend some millions of dollars on a scoreboard for the Toyota Center, in a facility that belongs to the citizens of Houston? No," Parker said.

The mayor does say if there's a problem, it's on Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, the elected state bookkeeper, to speak up and stop them. It's a point lawmakers from both parties agree on.

Combs told us in writing that expenses "go through a thorough review before any costs related to an event are reimbursed." And she has denied some expenses in the past.

But despite repeated requests from us, she couldn't find time in her schedule to tell you why a Jumbotron would qualify for state money. Nor did she want to explain on camera why her office had no problem spending your money on an $8 million big screen for the Dallas All-Star game.

Do the math. Your dollars have bought $16 million worth of big screens since 2010.

"I think somebody needs to have the authority to say there are some things we're not going to pay for," Austin State Sen. Kirk Watson said.

But the big screens aren't all you're paying for. This state program, which was designed to help attract big events to Texas, has grown in the last several years to now include payments for all sorts of things at this weekend's All-Star affair.

Take a look at what we uncovered in the contract of this year's game: 520 hotel rooms for the NBA VIPs, a shoe shine stand for top customers, LA Lakers-style crowd lighting -- whatever that is -- padded chairs for the front-row high rollers, whole arena Wi-Fi access and a plasma TV near the elevators.

At a time when Texas is cutting on parks and health care and your kids' school, the Texas comptroller is likely to approve plasma TVs for elevator lobbies.

"Just because you have the right to do it, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do," Patrick said.

We should point out the city of Houston expenses, like police overtime and garbage pickup, will all be covered under the fund. The state has four similar funds. But after our investigation, it may not happen much longer.