Public Notice: Putting the Trust in Event Trust Funds?
Mike Collier, COTA, and the comptroller's scandal
By Nick Barbaro, Fri., Sept. 26, 2014
It seems like all we're talking about these days is the City Council – see forum info below and on the next page – but it's worth noting that there are some other races happening this November. The League of Women Voters just announced a forum series for the AISD board elections (Oct. 9-16; more on those later); someone will get around to talking to the Austin Community College board candidates one of these days; and, oh yeah, there are a bunch of local and statewide partisan races going on as well. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte head the Democratic ticket, but perhaps the most aggressive campaign is being pushed by Texas Comptroller hopeful Mike Collier, who this week leveled new blasts at lame-duck incumbent Susan Combs, whose corrupt policies would almost surely be continued under Glenn Hegar, the GOP candidate for the job.
Collier has been slamming Combs regularly for the way her office has handled the state's Major Events Trust Fund, and in particular its quarter-billion-dollar public funding of the Circuit of the Americas. He says one of the first things he'd do is work to reassign management of the METF to another agency, so the comptroller can be an impartial watchdog over the trust fund. "The comptroller's office should not be on the front-end of deals such as Formula One. If the watchdog is the dealmaker, he can no longer be impartial. This is a well-known business practice."
Collier got some extra ammunition this week from two press sources: First, the San Antonio Express-News reported on Sept. 13 that the legality of COTA's original application for $250 million in state funding for Formula One is in question, due to a lack of documentation that should reside within the comptroller's office. The second report was more like friendly fire: the motor racing publication Motorsport.com reported Tuesday that COTA's official crowd count of over 50,000 attendees for last weekend's FIA World Endurance Championship "frankly stunned many in the press room, who were guessing half that many or fewer. The track said that nearly 35,000 attended the two-day race weekend in 2013."
Why does that matter? The number of bodies is a key factor in COTA getting public subsidies. Combs has already earmarked over $250,000 in state tax dollars for this race alone, giving the track a vested interest in ensuring that attendance figures make for a believable bump in the "incremental tax" gain – additional tax revenue an event generates above and beyond what Texans would spend on any given weekend – and establishing that figure is what allows COTA to tap into several different state funds, including the METF.
In theory, a competent comptroller would ask for proof of the number of tickets sold, how many attendees came from outside the state, etc. But instead, the comptroller's website blithely states that cities who sign on to the requests for state funding are "primarily responsible for ensuring that requests for funding are free of waste or abuse." Unfortunately for Austin, the City Council ceded that authority to Circuit Events Local Organizing Committee, a creation of COTA itself, so don't expect much in the way of the henhouse guarding from that particular fox.
Regarding F1, the Express-News also reported that "an assistant attorney general argued in a letter the comptroller's office had little obligation to investigate ... allegations or even verify the claim that CELOC made the application." But in fact, state law does appear to give the responsibility to investigate such allegations to the Attorney General, who would be ... oh, right, our current GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott.
If you're interested in seeing who else is getting big chunks of public change, download the current list at www.texasahead.org/tax_programs/event_fund/payments.php. And while you're skimming it, remember that all these giveaways were authorized by the same comptroller who just announced that she wants to yank the current, relatively modest subsidies for wind power.
The final City Council candidate forums in the series sponsored by the City Ethics Review Commission and the League of Women Voters take place this week:
Districts 2 & 3: Tue., Sept. 30, 6pm, Montopolis Rec. Center, 1200 Montopolis.
Mayor: Wed., Oct. 1, 6pm, Austin Convention Center.
You can watch all the forums at www.lwvaustin.org.
Meanwhile, the final forums in the creative sector forum series, sponsored by the Austin Creative Alliance, Austin Music People, and the Austin Technology Council, are this week as well.
District 1: Saturday, Sept. 27, 3-4:30pm, Victory Grill, 1104 E. 11th.
Mayor: Monday, Sept. 29, 5:30-7pm, Long Center, 701 W. Riverside.
District 4: Tuesday, Sept. 30, 3:30-5pm, Carousel Lounge, 1110 E. 52nd.
And the 2014 Bond Election Voter Information Brochure with details about the city bond election is now available online: www.austintexas.gov/2014bond.
The Renewable Roundup & Sustainable Living Fair, sponsored by the Sierra Club, takes place this Friday through Sunday, Sept. 26-28, at the Bell County Exposition Center in Belton: demos, exhibitors, and more than 70 speakers on renewable energy, electric vehicles, solar installations, green building, rainwater catchment, aquaponics, organic farming, and more, plus a children's area, food, and activities. Taking the kids? Go on Friday for "Save the Planet? Kids Are the Answer!" $8; $20 for a three-day pass; seniors, student, and other discounts available. More info at www.theroundup.org.
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