Texas Senate hearing focuses on state's sports arena spending

April 3, 2013 4:13:14 PM PDT
An Eyewitness News investigation received major attention at the Texas Capitol Wednesday. A parade of cities defended a program that attracts big events, but also spends your tax money on massive arena improvements like stadium Jumbotrons.

Watching the NBA All-Star game on the best Jumbotron in the NBA is exciting -- far more exciting than a gavel slam in a Texas Senate. But that's the way change is made, and it seems change is coming to Texas.

"Anybody who's looked at this would feel like we're handing these things out like candy," said State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth).

Not surprisingly, the people using the Texas tax dollars to attract events don't want to give that "candy" up. Cities from all over Texas opposed the changes.

"Texas has been extremely successful in attracting major events to our state and we are the envy of every competitive city in the United States," said Janis Schmees-Burke with the Harris County/Houston Sports Authority.

For years, Texas has spent your money to buy fancy new toys for the wealthy owners of sports teams. Most notably is that $8 million HD Jumbotron in Dallas and the state could soon be asked to spend millions to for an even nicer one hanging at Houston's Toyota Center.

The money comes from temporary bumps in tax collections from big events like the All-Star game. Texas sets that money aside, and then gives most of it right back to the teams that put on the event.

Six days after we exposed the spending in February, lawmakers moved to ban most of it. On Wednesday, they tried to get support for a cap on spending for permanent improvements, like big screens, and government groups that use the money to attract events pushed back.

"The 5 percent limit seems small," said Theron Bowman with the city of Arlington.

"We estimate that 90 percent of the events that Dallas has hosted with trust fund awards would not have come to Dallas, or frequented Texas as many times, in the past few years if we did not have the event trust fund," said Monica Paul with the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"These improvements have enabled us to then go out and bid and bring other events," Burke said.

Burke says without trust fund money -- your tax dollars -- Houston couldn't compete for events. That's despite the fact no other state that hosted an All-Star game in the last seven years has a similar program. She went a step further, saying our investigation into the spending has hurt Houston. She didn't want to say why on camera.

The elected official who approves the spending, Comptroller Susan Combs, wasn't at the hearing and wouldn't answer our questions a few weeks ago, despite claims of mismanagement in her office and calls for an immediate audit.

"I've been here 20 years. I've never seen anything reach this point without the oversight that it needs," Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said.

In Austin, nothing happens fast and the changes aren't law yet. But it's likely that by the end of the session in May, much of the spending on Jumbotrons will be greatly curtailed.

The Rockets and the Houston group, by the way, have still not submitted their request to be paid back for the big screen inside the Toyota Center.

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