House Panel Debates Bills to Rein In Film Incentives

Texas A&M University System Regent Jim Schwertner and former Regent Richard Box participate in an interview for a new movie, produced by John Robison, that revisits the decision to move to the SEC.
Texas A&M University System Regent Jim Schwertner and former Regent Richard Box participate in an interview for a new movie, produced by John Robison, that revisits the decision to move to the SEC.

A group of Texas House members Thursday considered legislation taking aim at the state film incentives program, which one lawmaker blasted for sending state funds to "Hollywood actors" who undermine Texas values.

“These programs have been used for inappropriate uses. Hard-earned taxpayer dollars have gone to Hollywood actors that have polarizing stances within our nation,” said state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, who introduced a measure to abolish the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program — better known as the film incentives program.

The House Economic and Small Business Development Committee heard public testimony on legislation that would block state grants for films and video games containing adult content, and Shaheen's bill, House Bill 2707, which would shutter the film incentives program.

Since 2008, the Texas Film Commission, under the governor's office, has provided grants through the program for companies that hire Texas workers to develop film, television, commercial or video game projects in the state. Critics of the program say it creates only temporary work for Texans and provides money for visiting out-of-state companies. Advocates argue incentives are necessary for attracting projects to Texas and competing with other states' film industries.

On Thursday, Shaheen criticized actors Sean Penn and Matt Damon, both of whom received money from the state for projects filmed in Texas. He blasted Penn for "befriending dictators" and making critical comments about religion and government in America, and he accused Damon of producing documentaries that "misrepresented the oil and gas industries."

 

But state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said the film incentive program has paid off, bringing millions of dollars into Texas. He called Shaheen’s measure “the worst bill I’ve seen this session.”

“When the state does something right, and there’s evidence of that, I’m troubled by people who want to dismantle those types of programs,” Villalba said.

In the last two years, video game developers received more than $16 million in grants and spent nearly $96 million on projects in Texas, according to the Texas Film Commission. Television, commercial and film companies were granted about $36 million and spent $200 million in the state. The two-year budget plan proposed by the House provides $73.7 million for the program — down from the $95 million included in the current budget — and the Senate version slashes the program down to $10 million.

Gov. Greg Abbott's office has requested at least $70 million — and ideally $95 million — for the program.

Peggy Venable, Texas policy director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said Thursday that Texas should drop out of the "arms race with other states" to attract film projects.

“Is this the highest and best use for this money?” Venable asked. "The film industry shouldn't be able to rely on hard-working taxpayer dollars."

Committee Chairwoman Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, said lawmakers should consider reforming state incentives programs.

“If we decide to do incentives, we need to see which one has the most impact,” Button said. “You don’t want to just give [them] away.”

 

Another bill before the committee, House Bill 1126 from state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, would block funding for film projects that were likely to receive an R rating and video games that were likely to receive an M rating, for “Mature” audiences. The measure would narrow the current restrictions that block funding for projects determined to contain “obscene” content or portray Texas negatively.

Workman told the committee that projects funded by the state should be “wholesome and appropriate to be viewed by the public at large.”

Most of the films and video games that have received state funding were assigned ratings lower than R or M, according to data from the Texas Film Commission. But several major titles, including Call of Duty: Black Ops, one of the best-selling video games of all time, are among the R- or M-rated projects that have received grants through the program but would be denied funding under HB 1126.

“I understand the concern about using state resources for content that people may find objectionable, but I think what we’ve seen in that area is that that’s a slippery slope on who’s deciding what that is,” said Tom Foulkes, vice president of state government affairs at the Entertainment Software Association, a D.C.-based organization that represents several gaming companies with studios in Texas.

Both bills were left pending by the committee.

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