The Joint Legislative Budget Committee certified a plan Tuesday that requires the Arizona Office of Tourism to spend $1.5 million a year for 30 years promoting ISM Raceway, Avondale’s one-mile NASCAR race track.
The deal was made in 2016, when then Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, pushed HB 2495, which stated that if the raceway spent $100 million on renovations, the Office of Tourism would receive $1.5 million a year to spend on promoting events at the venue from fiscal-year 2022 to fiscal-year 2051.
The raceway, formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway, exceeded the required amount, the renovations totaled $178 million and ranged from new seats to a giant light up Saguaro cactus that looks like a stoplight.
The changes also included a new location for the finish line, a margarita tequila bar on the infield and a new wifi system that will be free for race-goers.
The bill divided lawmakers in 2016, but not along party lines. It passed the house 35-19 with support from 16 Democrats and 19 Republicans. In the Senate, the bill passed 18-11, with 10 Democrats and eight GOP lawmakers in favor of the bill.
JLBC members were also split on the issue Tuesday. Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, said he took issue with the specificity of the bill and its support of private industry instead of public tourism destinations like Grand Canyon National Park.
“Public dollars spent on private enterprise can lead you down a path where you do not want to go,” Friese said at the committee meeting Tuesday evening.
But Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, who was in favor of certifying the plan, said the money will benefit all of Arizona, not just the race track.
“This isn’t going to the raceway, it’s not like we are paying them back,” Gray said. “Tourism is a huge return on investment, it really is a benefit to our state to have this.”
Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, echoed Gray’s point, and said private events often are advertised by the Office of Tourism.
“When you have the Super Bowl here, do you go on vacation?” Gowan asked the tourism representative at the meeting.
Rep. Diego Espinosa, D-Tolleson, who represents the district that contains the racetrack, said the two annual NASCAR races at the track generate $425 million and thousands of jobs.
Aside from NASCAR, the track holds other racing events as well. It is also set to hold NASCAR’s 2020 championship weekend.
Although spending public dollars to promote private events is not new, Ben Stewart, who spoke for the Office of Tourism at the meeting, said the specifics of this legislation are new.
Stewart said the department typically decides where to spend its general fund dollars and is not required to spend it on specific events.
He said the closest example to the spending for ISM Raceway is the department’s spending for Cactus League spring training, which takes place yearly.
Although there will need to be reports sent to the committee about the spent money, the certification Tuesday approved all 30 years of the plan.