Car shows, music festivals, and women’s golf tournaments.
These are all examples of events that could soon receive taxpayer funds from the state of Texas, thanks to legislation moving through the Texas Legislature.
The Texas House’s Culture, Recreation, & Tourism Committee unanimously approved four bills last month that would add various events to the Major Events Reimbursement Program, a slush fund used by politicians to funnel taxpayer dollars into the hands of politically connected businesses, all in the name of economic development.
Organizations eligible for the fund would include the Professional Bull Riders Inc., the South by Southwest festival, the Professional Golf Association, and even the National Hot Rod Association.
While corporate welfare is par for the course in Texas politics, what may surprise Texans is how nonchalantly the proposals are approved. None of the four bills presented received any critical questions.
After the committee chair, State Rep. Ken King (R–Canadian), presented his bill to allow the Professional Bull Riders World Finals to apply for the program, he was asked if he has ridden bulls. After responding that he had, King received a playful follow-up question: Is there photographic evidence? “Good luck to you, Mr. Chair,” he was told before the committee moved on to the next bill.
But perhaps there was no greater display of the Capitol’s “bipartisanship” than in a bill by State Rep. Donna Howard (D–Austin) to qualify the famous South by Southwest Conference for the fund.
One of the first major events to be canceled last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, South by Southwest held a virtual event in March of this year. Howard hopes additional funding will help the next in-person conference revive Austin’s hospitality industry.
South by Southwest’s Director of Special Projects Brad Spies testified in favor of the bill, arguing that it had the local financial impact of a Super Bowl and would further economic development. When his three minutes of allotted speaking time ran out before he was finished, King assured him the committee was persuaded.
“Mr. Spies, I’m going to have to [stop you right there]. Your three minutes [are] up. And by the way, you won, so it’s fine. You’re going to be okay. Thank you for being here,” said King.
Spies was not asked any questions. However, State Rep. Celia Israel (D–Austin) inquired about placing the bill on the Local and Consent Calendar, which is typically intended for noncontroversial legislation to quickly pass. However, King informed her such a move would be unlikely.
“Let the record reflect that I asked,” she quipped.
South by Southwest has previously hired two lobbyists, William J. Miller and Eddie Solis. It is unclear what legislation their services entailed.
In 2019, Texas lawmakers attempted to add several entities to the program’s list of qualifying events, including the National Hot Rod Association Fall Nationals, but failed to come to a compromise on which events could tap into the limited funds, killing the legislation.