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High-Brow Racing, High-Risk Politics

What the proposed Formula One project means for Comptroller Susan Combs, the future of taxpayer-financed events — and Texas.

F1s exiting the pitlane during the 3rd free practice  at the 2010 Montreal Grand Prix.

Failure might be just the medicine for Comptroller Susan Combs.

Combs, an outspoken advocate for Formula One racing in Texas, has been watching a relatively noisy group of people get madder and madder about the state’s proposed $250 million contribution to a track being built near Austin. Now the whole project is in peril, and she has laid down the law: no race, no money.

If the races don’t come to Texas, the state won’t invest the money. And if the state doesn’t invest the money, Combs — who already has a fair-sized stack of political liabilities piled up — won’t have to talk about using taxpayer money for fancy European racing while financing is cut for public schools.

That’s not a fair presentation of the policy here, but it is how the political rhetoric shapes up.

The policy idea is that the state would put up $25 million a year for 10 years and that it will reap economic development rewards that more than make up for the investment. Lawmakers set up a couple of funds for this sort of thing — one was used to attract the Super Bowl. The state is not allowed to contribute money, however, unless the comptroller and her economic gnomes certify that the state income generated by sales and other taxes would be larger than the state investment. They also have to show that the income wouldn’t have come in had the event not taken place.

Combs has been all over this deal. She helped push the incentives through the Legislature, and helped get the City of Austin to jump in with seed money. The players include Tavo Hellmund, a former Formula One driver who grew up in Austin — and the investors Red McCombs, a generous contributor to her political accounts, and Bobby Epstein. And then there’s Bernie Ecclestone, a colorful Englishman who runs F1, as it’s called.

Those characters are in the final stages of either closing this deal or tearing it to bits — sort of a super-committee of open-wheel racing. The state says it will hold its money until there’s a race. The track owners have stopped construction, saying they won’t start until there’s a contract for a Texas race. Hellmund and Ecclestone no longer have a contract to bring the race here. Everyone is pointing fingers.

On December 7, the FIA World Motor Sport Council will meet to decide on the 2012 racing calendar and whether there will be a Texas race. New Jersey, meanwhile, is in the wings with plans for an F1 race in 2013, a deal that uses the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop (nice TV) and doesn’t include state tax money (nice politics for them; tough comparison for Combs).

The state money is what took this off the sports pages. Combs’s interest in higher office is what makes it a political issue. She’s one of several Republican state officeholders openly looking at the 2014 race for lieutenant governor, and she’s smoking the competition in the finance department. She’s also under fire.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples have been openly critical of her reign as comptroller. Prod them gently and they’ll point to her handling of a data breach that left personal information of current and former state employees open to hackers, to her handling of an appliance rebate program, to her recent switch in position on abortion. (She would now allow it only in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk; she historically wanted the decision left to the mother.)

F1 is new to that list of grievances. But it has taken a populist turn in Austin that could be spreading. Patterson this week asked Attorney General Greg Abbott whether Combs exceeded her authority by offering state money. The taxpayer financing is under fire, in part because the state budget is a wreck and in part because crony capitalism has taken on a sharp edge. Combs (and Gov. Rick Perry, who also has signed off on this deal) has received significant financial support from McCombs, leaving her open to criticism about her official support for this business deal.

If the race comes off and does well financially, she’ll look smart. The timing of a successful annual November race couldn’t be better for someone in politics. Or worse, if it’s a flop. And if there’s no race at all — if Bernie and Red and Bobby and Tavo can’t pull it together — that might be the best politics of all.

Red McCombs and Bobby Epstein are major donors to The Texas Tribune.

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