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As Texas Gambles $250 Million, New Jersey Takes a Safer Route | The Nation

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As Texas Gambles $250 Million, New Jersey Takes a Safer Route

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Formula One racing could be headed for the streets of New Jersey within the next two years. The anticipated cost to taxpayers? Nothing.

Since July 2010, state lawmakers in Texas have been fending off countless legal and political challenges mounted against its effort to bring Formula One to Austin, the state’s capital. On June 29, the Austin City Council officially approved the initiative, signifying an end to the measure’s major hurdles. The cost to Texas taxpayers? $250 million.

The difference? The New Jersey race would run on existing streets in the cities of Weehawken and West New York, underneath the New York City skyline. The Texas race is set to take place in a massive 3.4-mile, $242 million track currently being constructed just southeast of Austin.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, Formula One is the world’s richest and most popular motorsport series. It has a tremendously turbulent history in this country, highlighted by an embarrassing driver boycott of the 2005 US Grand Prix. In 2007, the United States hosted its last Formula One race, with the sport failing to gain traction stateside in recent years.

The mayors of the two New Jersey cities confirmed on Tuesday that they were in preliminary talks with a group of high-profile investors regarding plans to bring Formula One to the Garden State as early as 2013.

“In these uncertain economic times when every direct and indirect revenue source is vital, our own Formula One race could be a very positive boost to our citizens,” Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and West New York Mayor Felix Roque said in a joint statement. “This said, we need to ensure that the financial benefits from the privilege of having these races in our towns are equitably shared and that no tax dollars are used.”

Texas, which recently pushed through a draconian budget bill that slashed funding for public schools by $4 billion, shorted Medicaid $4.8 billion in projected expenses, and cut funding for family planning programs by 66 percent, took a different route to give Formula One a new home: it pledged $25 million a year of state funds to the racing sport, from 2012 through 2022. This means that if all goes accordingly, the state will spend $250 million in tax revenue on the sport over the next ten years.

“Public education and social services have received major cuts, and every Texas community will suffer as a result,” Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo told The Nation. “This was not a prudent time for our state to commit $250 million towards a for-profit recreational event.”

Tovo found herself in the minority of the City Council’s June 29 vote for the $25 million annual subsidy. She had been a vocal critic of the project during a victorious runoff election campaign that resulted in her being sworn into office one day before the Council’s Formula One vote. Had the measure been rejected, it is likely that the state’s comptroller, Susan Combs, would not have been able to move any state funds towards the project, since the city of Austin was required to be party to the agreed-upon financial deal.

Public backlash against the ambitious project came at Austin City Hall hearings and through outraged e-mails to local and state representatives. Three Austin area residents went so far as to file a lawsuit (that has since been dropped) against Combs, alleging that she promised race promoters state money before being legally authorized to do so.

Organizers and Formula One supporters have long argued that the income and taxes generated by events at the new stadium will more than offset the state funds being funnelled into the project. Projections have suggested that $400 million will be pumped into the state economy and around 1,300 temporary jobs will be made available during the stadium’s construction.

But even with such predictions and figures floating around, the prevailing question remains, should a state so strapped for cash make such a large financial gamble? Especially on a sport that left the United States four years ago without so much as a whimper?

Perhaps New Jersey is going about this in an appropriate fashion by leaving taxpayers’ money out of the equation. Texas, on the other hand, has thrown itself head-first into its venture, with a quarter of a billion state dollars on the line. With public services reeling from the recent budget cuts, it is difficult not to question the state’s priorities when it comes to allocating funds.

Construction on Texas’s stadium is well underway and the US Grand Prix is tentatively scheduled to be the penultimate race of the 2012 Formula One season. There’s no turning back.

“Now that the Formula One decision has been officially reached, I do hope that it is very successful,” Tovo said. “For the sake of our community and for the sake of our state.”

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