Lege Lines: Film Incentive Program Funding Uncertain, Anti-Choice Buffoonery, and More

Lege considers film incentive program funding and anti-choice antics take hold

Steve Belsky
Steve Belsky

Clear the Set!

Contrary to popular opinion, Texas doesn't have a film incentive program. It has the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program (TMIIIP), which covers video games, TV, and, yes, film. In fiscally conservative Texas, there's always a question about whether government should give business incentives, but this time around there's a new debate: Should those industries be separated out? An increasing consensus says yes.

TMIIIP is the only scandal-free incentive program from former Gov. Rick Perry's administration, with investigations of the Emerging Technology Fund (ETF) and the Texas Enterprise Fund, or TEF, (see "Money for Nothing?" Oct. 31, 2014), and actual criminal prosecutions over management of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas ("Davis: Abbott Failed to Police CPRIT," May 16, 2014). This year, Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed closing the ETF, and asked for a major overhaul of the TEF. However, he remains as bullish as his predecessor on TMIIIP. In a Feb. 3 hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, Abbott's Director of Administration, Stacey Napier, called the fund "very important. It's bringing in industry to Texas, and it's working very well."

Here's a brief history of the incentives. In 2005, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, authored Senate Bill 1142, establishing the Film Indus­try Incentive Program. But it was an empty purse, since the legislature didn't actually put any money into it. That had to wait until 2007, when lawmakers appropriated $22 million for the biennium. They also changed what the fund does: Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, authored House Bill 1634, which renamed the program and added video games and digital media to the list of eligible projects. Two years later, that appropriation rocketed to $62 million, then plummeted in 2011 to $32 million, before funding hit an unprecedented $95 million in 2013.

This time around, both the House and Senate have zeroed it out in their draft budgets (as is standard practice). That would basically decimate the program, which is relatively small and parsimonious, compared to other states like Louisiana and Michigan (two states that have stolen away several films nominally set in Texas). However, House negotiations already have it at closer to $60 million. That's still short of the legislative appropriations request for $95 million, and Abbott has asked for $70 million, which he said was closer to the actual level of applications.

The complicated bit is where the money comes from. Texas Motion Picture Alliance (TXMPA) vice president and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 484 president Steve Belsky said, "If Hollywood Reporter wants to simplify it and say we have $95 million, then go go go." The 2013 budget only appropriated $22 million, but there was also $10 million in unexpended fund balances. The other $63 million came from a portion of the hotel occupancy tax. Why hotels? Because film and TV productions use a lot of hotel rooms, and the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association saw the incentive as a great return on investment. Back in 2013, Dukes told the Chron­icle, "Having film production in Texas created heads in beds, and therefore [the hotels] felt that it was in their best interest to put up a small percentage of the tax." However the bulk of the incentives actually go to the gaming industry, which doesn't rely on hotels the way film productions do.

Last session, THLA publicly asked for gaming to be funded separately; this time, they have the backing of the Texas Association of Business and the Enter­tain­ment Software Association. While TXMPA has yet to adopt a formal position, Belsky said a review of the split is "probably overdue. We're pro-gaming in the sense that it's a moving image product and a successful job driver, but we're probably overdue evaluating how they fit into this program."

Clarifying the funding issue could make refilling the pot easier. According to IATSE lobbyist Lawrence Collins, after two months of negotiations the Senate still technically has nothing budgeted for TMIIIP, while the House draft has roughly $60 million from assorted sources. As for splitting games off, that would be a relatively simple administrative measure. With the session barely at its halfway point, there's still plenty of time for drama and a happy ending for all.

Former Fetus, Constant Clown

During the Planned Parenthood lobby day on March 11, the Capitol's resident joker Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, thought it would be a hilarious prank to stick a sign on the wall in front of his office calling himself a "former fetus." Enter House Administrations Committee Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who took down the sign because it's a clear violation of the building rules – the Capitol being a historic site and all. Stickland seems to specialize in sticking a thumb in the eye of House decorum, as he was the last friend that Tarrant County Open Carry had under the dome after their comments to lawmakers steered worryingly close to threatening behavior (see "Bill of the Week: Or, How Not to Pass Open Carry," Jan. 30). In high dudgeon, and removed from all context, he tweeted that "My #prolife sign was just ripped down by @charliegeren." Enter longtime lobbyist Michael Quinn Sul­livan of Empower Texans, who declaimed the tyranny of Geren on Twitter (of course, it's not that Sullivan is just mad because Geren has spent years trying to crack down on the kind of dark money activities that keep groups like Empower Texans in business). Geren witheringly tweeted back: "Signs are not allowed to be posted in the walls of the building they were removed and placed in the office of the members."

Short Lines

8,009: That's the total number of bills and resolutions filed by the March 13 deadline... Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has filed SB 1619, extending the life of the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan from 2019 to 2023, and adding more counties to the air quality initiative... Questionable integrity: On March 16, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted out SB 10, Houston Repub­lican Sen. Joan Huffman's proposal to move the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County District Attorney's office and under the Attorney General.

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Rick Perry, Emerging Technology Fund, Texas Enterprise Fund, 84th Legislature, Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, John Carona, Greg Abbott, Dawnna Dukes, Steve Belsky, Lawrence Collins, Planned Parenthood, Jonathan Stickland, Charlie Geren, Michael Quinn Sullivan, Kirk Watson, Joan Huffman

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