Lawmakers Driving and Major Event Funds for NASCAR

By Mark Wiggins

AUSTIN — When it comes to packing the stands, NASCAR is king.

At Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, race day averages more than 150,000 cheering fans. Compare that to nearby AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys, which is designed for a maximum standing room-only capacity of 105,000.

“Oh it’s incredible,” said state Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound), whose district includes the track. “You have obviously tens of thousands of people that are there. It’s a vibe unlike any other thing you can possibly imagine.”

Aside from the thrill of watching drivers like his personal favorite Kyle Busch, Parker says the annual races bring big dollars from out-of-town and out-of-state visitors to the surrounding community.

“Obviously the hotels and the restaurants, the airlines, the entire region benefits from it,” said Parker.

The track will host two Sprint Cup races this season, guaranteeing big crowds and major television exposure. Decisions over where to host host the races are made by NASCAR on an annual basis, and lawmakers like Parker and state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) worry other states are angling to get Texas loose.

“We’ve seen where Las Vegas has taken a race from Georgia within the last few years,” said Isaac.

To stay in the race, both lawmakers have filed bills to ensure NASCAR is eligible for funding under the state’s Major Events Trust Fund. The fund provides taxpayer money up front to help lure events like the Super Bowl and Formula 1 to Texas. The fund is intended to be replenished by tax revenue generated by the events.

“These funds work, they do attract events,” said Isaac, whose House Bill 900 would ensure Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and ESPN events are eligible as well.

Lawmakers intended to include NASCAR as an eligible event in 2013, but a technicality discovered late in the session required new legislation to complete. Parker filed House Bill 902 to clarify the rule solely with regard to NASCAR. Together, the legislation is expected to meet minimal opposition in committee, where a Thursday hearing lasted little longer than a green flag pit stop.

“It is very real that we could lose it if we don’t in fact go forward with successfully passing this legislation and getting this clarification in statute,” said Parker.

Yet the wheels could come off over the trust fund itself. Some lawmakers oppose it in principle, in particular after controversy over the Formula 1 contract exposed gaps in oversight and accountability. The trust fund is currently administered by the state comptroller, but newly-elected Comptroller Glenn Hegar has proposed moving the fund to the governor’s office.

Isaac says the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development, on which he serves, is reviewing draft legislation to that effect. Additional reform legislation is expected this session as well, and Isaac understands concerns over the fund.

“Absolutely, and that was the point of the reform bill that we did last session was to correct that, to add more reporting requirements, more transparency in the program, and we’re going to continue to see more improvements this session.”

Despite ongoing debate over the fund’s fate, neither lawmaker wants to see another state put Texas into the wall.

“The reality is even though we’ve had a track record for many, many years of literally having the events there at TMS, it does not provide any level if you will of comfort or increase competitiveness with regard to the decision process here for the next cycle, if that makes sense. So that’s why it’s up for grabs, that’s why we have to be aggressive.”