AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The promoters of Formula One's U.S. Grand Prix blew a deadline to collect their annual $25 million in Texas taxpayer money to help pay for the 2018 race. Now state lawmakers are about to give them another chance and make it easier to get the funds in the future.
The Grand Prix depends heavily on state cash to cover Formula One's license fees to stage the race. The Circuit of the Americas in Austin has collected more than $150 million from the Major Events Reimbursement Program for F1's only race in the U.S. since 2012.
But race organizers missed a paperwork deadline ahead of the 2018 race and were denied their annual payout, threatening a devastating financial blow. State lawmakers have now stepped in with a measure that would let them reapply and get the money. The bill has already passed the Texas House of Representatives and awaits a Senate vote before the legislative session ends May 27.
Circuit of the Americas President Bobby Epstein, who also founded the investment firm Prophet Capital, has pumped about $100,000 in campaign donations to state officials and lawmakers in the six months since the 2018 race, including donations to Gov. Greg Abbott, whose office controls the fund, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate.
Other donations went to several lawmakers who sit on committees that first considered the bill or live in districts near the racetrack. Epstein did not immediately return messages seeking comment Thursday.
Tickets have already gone on sale for the 2019 race and Formula One has expressed no public worries. In 2015, Epstein complained that a $5 million reduction in reimbursement put the race at risk, but it has survived.
The reimbursement program allows organizers of big events to cover their costs by giving them tax money that was collected around the event. While critics have called it a corporate giveaway of taxpayer money, it has been used by big events such as the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four. The U.S. Grand Prix has been the largest recipient of state cash by far.
State law requires applicants to submit an anti-human trafficking plan 30 days before an event as part of an effort to combat spikes in prostitution. U.S. Grand Prix organizers didn't file their plan until 11 days before the 2018 race and were disqualified for reimbursement. Within weeks, Epstein donated $50,000 to Abbott and $25,000 to Patrick, and donated nearly $13,000 to members of the committees considering the bill.
The bill doesn't name the Circuit of the Americas or the U.S. Grand Prix, but it specifically carves out a second chance to apply for events that miss the 30-day deadline for the anti-human trafficking plan if it gets filed seven days prior, and is used during the event. Both of those details apply to the Austin race.
State Rep. John Frullo, who authored the bill, lives in Lubbock, about 400 miles from the racetrack. He said he wasn't asked by anyone at the Circuit of the Americas to make the change. Frullo said his interest is in preventing human-trafficking and didn't want to see a major event like the U.S. Grand Prix get wiped out by a paperwork error.
Keeping F1's only U.S. race viable is important, he said.
"The economy, the city, Texas and the country benefit from that (race)," Frullo said. "I don't know their finances, but they did everything they were supposed to do. We want to make sure a small technicality doesn't get in the way."
Abbott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman has previously called the state's relationship with the racetrack a "productive partnership."
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