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Christie’s kibosh on ‘Jersey Shore’ grant renews calls to end Texas’ film subsidies

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision last month to block nearly $500,000 in state film subsidies to the MTV show “Jersey Shore” has sparked another round of agitation from tea party groups and tax-cutting enthusiasts against a similar program in Texas.

The Texas Film Commission‘s Texas Moving Image Industry Incentives Program was first funded by the Legislature in 2007, as the state found itself competing as a location for film and TV projects with states like Louisiana and New Mexico. Just a few years later, though, tighter budgets across the country have some states scaling back their incentive programs.

In late September, Michael Quinn Sullivan, the influential tax opponent who became a leading conservative voice at the Texas State Capitol earlier this year, renewed the call to end the program here, on his blog at Empower Texans:

Texas had a chance to end our state’s film subsidy program this year when lawmakers confronted a $15 billion budget shortfall. State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) offered amendments to eliminate funding for the subsidies during the budget debate.

But rather than risk losing the chance at getting campaign-ready photo-ops with Hollywood starlets, legislators kept the program afloat while cutting elsewhere. There was so little support for abandoning them, Mr. Simpson withdrew the amendments before even getting a vote.

The post ran as an op-ed in the Midland Reporter-Telegram, and drew more support from a tea party group in Alvin.

Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka argued that it’s disingenuous for Sullivan to blame the legislature for the program, when it’s actually managed out of Gov. Rick Perry’s office.

In January, the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker looked at the plight of Texas’ film incentives as the Legislature geared up to tackle the state’s huge budget shortfall:

In the last two legislative sessions, the cash request was pretty simple: The Texas Film Com­mission wasn’t asking for much ($22 million in 2007 and $62 million in 2009), which produced significant job creation for such a tiny slice of the Texas budget. Advocates hoped that, if the program created jobs and brought in more tax revenue than it cost, the state might boost the incentive pot. Instead, when the Governor’s Office filed its appropriations request last August, it only asked for $53 million – down $9 million from 2009.

The Chronicle also reported that the program does, indeed, appear to bring new spending to Texas well in excess of the grants:

So who gets that money? While the program is still popularly referred to as film incentives, television was the single biggest recipient of funds, with 22 projects with production budgets totaling $132.7 million in line to split $24.5 million between them. However, the best return on investment may be video games: $9 million in grants snagged $170.7 million in game development spending. Video games also created the most full-time jobs: 1,694 compared to 692 in films.

Just as the speculation was peaking as to whether he’d mount a run for the presidency, Perry famously appeared alongside a video-game version of himself as the Texas A&M University quarterback, announcing that EA Games would bring 300 new jobs to Austin. EA Games president Frank Gibeau cited the incentives program as one reason his company was expanding in Texas.

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