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Speedway Assistance: Public Safety or Corporate Welfare?

Senate budget appropriates $800K for traffic control at Michigan International Speedway

Handing over taxpayer dollars to assist Michigan International Speedway has become a tradition at the state capitol.

The Senate version of the 2014 state police budget would appropriate $800,000 for traffic control at Michigan International Speedway (MIS). If that appropriation stays in the budget, it would bring the amount of budgeted taxpayer dollars used to help support MIS over the past five years to just shy of $20 million.

Senate Bill 185 labels the appropriation as "Traffic Control Support." It is used to pay for the state police to handle traffic control around the speedway, particularly for a couple of heavily attended events.

In the fiscal years between 2010 and 2012, Michigan taxpayers doled out $18.1 million in special tax credits to MIS. One of the larger credits was the NASCAR Safety Credit. Its stated purpose was for improvements to, and maintenance of, traffic and pedestrian safety at the speedway. The stated goal of the credit was to defray the cost of addressing congested traffic conditions auto racing fans had experienced, particularly when exiting MIS, which could make them reluctant to come back for future events.

Gov. Rick Snyder's policy on credits took hold in the 2013 budget and assistance to MIS was reduced to a $774,812 appropriation to pay for the state police to provide traffic control at the facility. Now, $800,000 is proposed for the 2014 budget.

"Corporate welfare comes in many flavors," said Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "But regardless of the form it takes, it's still corporate welfare."

However, Roger Curtis, spokesman for MIS, said the speedway has not asked for anything more from the state than would be expected for other events that are major attractions.

"Dr. Gary Wolfram from Hillsdale College said it best in that, 'MIS serves as the equivalent of a venue similar to Disneyland in that, in effect, it is an export industry where out of state residents purchase services from a Michigan producer,' " Curtis said. "Because we are one of the few NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tracks not located near major interstates or state roads, we have historically had the worst traffic of all NASCAR tracks. It used to take five hours to empty all of our parking lots, and that did not include campers.

"We have not asked for incremental or special taxes of any kind," Curtis continued. "We have not asked for a block grant to spend. We have targeted a very specific need and presented our case in purely economic terms and merits and asked that they stand on their own. Many states and municipalities will include such services in packages to ensure that they secure special events that drive large, real and meaningful economic impacts such as Super Bowls, Final Fours and Ryder Cups."

Currently, the House version of the state police budget does not include money for MIS. That measure is House Bill 4328, sponsored by House Appropriations Committee Chair Joe Haveman, R-Holland.

Haveman said he doesn't oppose the $800,000 appropriations carve-out. He said the fact that it isn't in his bill doesn't necessarily mean it won't be put in.

"I really don't have a problem with it," Rep. Haveman said. "I'm fed up with the whole thing about picking winners and losers. I think it's getting to the point where it is too much of a clique. We're having other very serious discussions about this budget. I think we can make good decisions for the people of Michigan. This (the MIS carve-out) is something I just don't have a problem with."

However, if Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, had gotten his way, the Senate version of the state police budget wouldn't have any money in it for MIS traffic control. Sen. Colbeck chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the state police budget. He is the sponsor of Senate Bill 185, but after it was reported from his subcommittee (without speedway traffic control dollars), the $800,000 was added to the bill by the full Senate Appropriations Committee.

"It wasn't in my budget," Sen. Colbeck said. "I don't think this is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. If MIS wants to have the state police for traffic control near the speedway, that's fine, but they should be the ones paying for it.

"Supporters of this (carve-out) argue that the speedway spurs investment in the state and has a big economic impact," Sen. Colbeck continued. "But there are many community organizations across the state that also help stimulate economic activity. I'm sure many of those would love to have the state police help with their traffic control issues, too. I don't understand why MIS should be a special case. It's just picking winners and losers."

It is likely that the differences between the two versions of the state police budget will be hashed out in a conference committee. Even if the money for the speedway does not end up in the budget, it could be slipped into a subsequent supplemental budget bill.

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See also:

Super Speedway Perks Live On: State Tax Credit to MIS Total $18.1 Million

Super Speedway Notches Second State Subsidy

Critics Shoot at Special Tax Deal For Michigan International Speedway