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by JAY ROOT

A new legal opinion about how state incentive money can be used prompted a new round of sparring Friday between Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Comptroller Susan Combs, who could face off in a 2014 race for lieutenant governor.

At issue is whether Combs overstepped over her authority when she told Formula One auto racing promoters in a letter two years ago that the state would provide $25 million a year to support the group’s efforts to build a track in Austin. Patterson says she didn’t follow the law. Combs says the promise of support did not represent an actual commitment of state money.

In an opinion released Wednesday, Attorney General Greg Abbott affirmed that there are specific steps the comptroller must take before beginning the process of awarding state incentive money to a private entity. That includes getting a request from a local governmental entity.

Patterson interpreted that to mean that Combs went beyond her authority when she wrote to F1 in May 2010, without an application from the city of Austin or its representative, that the state “will be sending $25 million” to the promoters if they brought F1 racing to Texas as planned.

“I think what it says is that the commitment is null and void,” Patterson said. “It says you have to comply with those things enumerated in the statute, and failing that you have no authority.”

But Abbott punted on the question of whether Combs actually violated the statute.

“The comptroller is required to follow the precise procedures” in the law, Abbott wrote. “Whether she in fact did so requires a resolution of facts not amenable to the opinion process.”

The comptroller has said that she was merely rolling out the welcome mat for Formula One and was not committing state money. Her office said that hasn’t changed, and disputed Patterson’s contention that Combs exceeded her authority.

“There’s nothing in the AG’s opinion to support his claim,” said Combs spokeswoman Lauren Willis. “We still maintain the letter was merely an effort to indicate broad support. We followed the law and continue to do so.”

It appears to be a moot point anyway.

Last year Combs backed away from the letter and said the state “will not be paying any funds in advance of the event.”

The Circuit of the Americas track is being built in southeast Travis County, and promoters say it will be ready in time for the inaugural Formula One race on Nov. 18.

JAY ROOT reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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