Gov. Rick Perry, wrapping up a weeklong trip to picturesque northern Italy, said he is trying to talk European businesses into moving some of their operations to Texas and has been forging closer ties with the promoters of Formula One racing.
Perry gave a rundown of his European visit Monday. He told Texas reporters on a trans-Atlantic conference call that he caught an F1 race in Milan on Sunday and had attended an international conference on the shores of Lake Como, the posh Alpine resort area known for its famous homeowners like George Clooney.
“I think it’s been a valuable opportunity for us to spread the word about Texas to a substantial number of key decision-makers and numerous industries across Europe,” Perry said. “If anyone in Italy is looking to relocate, to expand, especially in the United States, their opportunity to succeed is better in Texas than any other state.”
On the sidelines of the Ambrosetti conference, Perry spoke to various business and government leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and Israeli President Shimon Peres. Then he took in an F1 race in Milan and met with Bobby Epstein, a partner in the Formula One race track being built in Austin. The inaugural race is scheduled for mid-November.
In Italy Perry also toured what he called the “Ferrari compound,” and met with the head of the Ferrari F1 racing team, Stefano Domenicale, and various business leaders.
“It was an opportunity for us just to relay to the them the state of Texas’ excitement about hosting this race,” Perry said.
Perry supports using tax dollars to lure business to Texas, through the use of the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Emerging Technology Fund and the Major Events Trust Fund, among others. In the case of the Formula One events in Austin, the incentives issue has been contentious, and some $30 million in incentive money for the first year still hangs in the balance.
“I’m a proponent of those types of competitive funds that we have,” Perry said. He said the Major Events Trust Fund in particular is working as the Legislature intended.
“And that is to be an incentive for the private sector to come in and spend extraordinary amounts of money,” Perry said.
But Perry’s advocacy of giving tax dollars to private companies has stirred complaints from many conservatives and Tea Party activists who say the incentives amount to little more than corporate welfare. Apple Computer, on track to become the most profitable public company ever, recently got a $21 million deal-closing sweetener from the Enterprise Fund to expand its operations in Austin, for example.
“The average Joe and Jane on the street don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s central planning and tinkering with the economy by the state,” said JoAnn Fleming, who chairs the advisory committee of the Texas Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus. “The free market will take care of itself. These companies don’t need money. They’ll take tax dollars as long as you have elected officials who dole it out.”
Fleming said Tea Party activists will be pushing lawmakers, meeting in session early next year, to eliminate government funding going to private companies and event promoters who promise to bring economic development to Texas.
TexasOne, a public-private partnership that gets funding from cities and private companies, is sponsoring Perry's Italy trip. The Ambrosetti Forum, which hosts the conference Perry attended, also picked up part of the cost, the governor’s office said.
Press releases issued by Perry’s office have said that no tax dollars are being used to pay for accommodations or travel for the governor or first lady Anita Perry. However, taxpayers are picking up the cost for Perry’s security. If the past is any guide, thousands will be spent on air travel, lodging and meals.
The full price tag won’t be known until the security team returns and the bills begin rolling in.
“We live in a world where security is an issue,” Perry said. “They’ve got a long-standing policy of providing security for sitting governors and their families and those policies always have been and I suspect will be in the future determined by the Department of Public Safety.”