Grabbing for the (Public's) Gold

Voters would decide if Olympic efforts get up to $100 million in state subsidies

The San Antonio Sports Foundation, the same determined boosters who brought the Final Four to the Alamodome, took a now-or-never approach to this Texas legislative session. With the selection of a U.S. Pan Am Games bidder set for this October, San Antonio could not dally in getting a bill passed that would address the USOC's requirement for a public guarantee.

Houston also preferred not to wait, while Dallas did.
In any event, San Antonio legislators led the charge at the Capitol. It didn't take long for Houston 2012 to join in. Dallas 2012, however, is standing by its story that it is indifferent about the bill, even though it may greatly enhance the city's odds of landing the games.

The Dallas City Council nearly imploded this spring over the question of whether it was secretly seeking taxpayer money to help finance the games while telling Dallasites the opposite. The mess was resolved in April when the council made its position clear with a 12-2 vote to support piggybacking onto the legislation.

Houston City Council also voted to support the bill. But Councilmember Orlando Sanchez doesn't buy the line that the trust fund will go untouched. "Do you know any government pots of money that never get tapped into?" he asks. "If you do, let me know."

He figures the trust fund is a disincentive for private sponsors to invest in the games, increasing the chances for a deficit. Even if the stash is never spent, the money is tied up for the years leading up to the event.

"Taxpayers need to understand that the state and city will not be able to avail themselves of any of this money until after the Olympics is over -- and then, only if there's money left in the fund," Sanchez says.

DeMontrond says that without the public guarantee, Houston and Dallas would be out of the running for the games. But top officials for the bid committees of three other cities competing for the 2012 games -- Cincinnati, Los Angeles and New York City -- told the Houston Press that they believe the requirement for a financial guarantee is not that cut-and-dried.

David Simon, president of the Los Angeles bid committee, says it might be possible to satisfy the guarantee through a fund made up entirely of private donations. Dan Doctoroff, president of NYC 2012, says, "What we have tried to do is wait a little bit and try to understand what would satisfy that requirement. There's really no clarity at all as to what will satisfy it."

But Schultz, the USOC's top dog, sides with DeMontrond in saying the rules are explicit. "Other cities may be trying to low-key it while they try to figure out how to do this," Schultz says. The USOC views a financial guarantee from a state as more impressive than one from a host city or county, he adds.

Jack Kelly, an Atlanta-based consultant for Houston 2012 and San Antonio's Pan Am Games bid, says other bid cities may find it politically difficult, if not legally impossible, to have their state legislatures buy into a financial guarantee. He goes a step further than Schultz in saying that he's certain the other bid cities hoped the USOC requirement would bomb out. "They would have much rather gone to the USOC and say, 'See, no one can satisfy this requirement, so take it out.' "

Texas, though, has satisfied it to the tune of as much as $100 million in taxpayer money. As a result, the USOC's requirement is staying put.

So if a U.S. city somewhere down the line loses money hosting the Olympics and the public gets fleeced -- whether it happens to Houston or Dallas, or to Los Angeles, New York City, Cincinnati or some other luckless town -- that city will have Texas to thank.

Or blame, depending on one's perspective.

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