JEFFERSON CITY — Like a sports team dangling money in front of a free agent, the Missouri Legislature signed off Wednesday on new state incentives intended to attract big-time sporting events such as college basketball tournaments and the Olympic trials.
The legislation sent to Gov. Jay Nixon would authorize up to $3 million in state subsidies each year to cities, counties and nonprofit groups to help them compete with out-of-state sites for the rights to host amateur sporting events, which can draw thousands of fans who spend millions of dollars.
The final House vote came on the same day that the Big 12 Conference men's basketball tournament tipped off in Kansas City and only a few days after the St. Louis area hosted the Missouri Valley Conference men's and women's basketball tournaments. Kansas City will also host early-round games of the upcoming NCAA men's basketball tournament and the entire NAIA Division I men's basketball tournament.
Supporters of the legislation said Missouri recently lost bids to host future events to other states that offered incentives. Although no guarantee of victory, they said the new state subsidies essentially keep Missouri competitive.
"It will make a tremendous difference in our ability to be successful and our ability to attract these events and generate their associated visitor spending," said Marc Schreiber, vice president of marketing and development for the St. Louis Sports Commission.
The bill is the first of the 2013 session to make it to Nixon's desk, signaling the importance placed upon it by legislators. The House passed the bill 127-29 Wednesday after no one spoke in opposition to it. The Senate passed it 28-4 in January.
Under the bill, local governments or nonprofit organizations can receive state tax credits equal to their costs of hosting the events or $5 for every ticket sold, whichever is less. The state tax credits could be sold, allowing recipients to convert them to cash to offset part of their costs for such things as renting facilities and providing security and transportation for athletes, officials, media and others involved in the event.
Schreiber said the subsidies for event organizers could allow them to make a more competitive bid, perhaps by allowing a sports association such as the NCAA to keep a larger percentage of the ticket sales.
The St. Louis Sports Commission has bids pending to host the Olympic swimming trials in 2016 and the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament in 2017 or 2018, and incentives could aid both bids, Schreiber said.
In recent years, St. Louis has lost bids to host the NCAA championships for wrestling and men's basketball to other cities that offered public incentives, Schreiber said.
"We are going to continue to have a problem attracting new sporting events if we don't pass this legislation," House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, told colleagues. "They're just not coming back to the state unless we do this."
But others cast doubt on such assertions.
Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, said the fact that both Kansas City and St. Louis are hosting college conference basketball tournaments this year undercuts the argument that state incentives are needed.
"They've been doing this for years without the incentives, so I just don't see what else the new draw is going to be," Hinson said after he voted against the bill.
Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, said he opposed the sports incentives because he philosophically disagrees with tax credits targeted for certain purposes.
"There's a fundamental principle of equality under the law that we're violating when we pick and choose who we want to get tax cuts or tax breaks as far as economic development goes," Curtman said.