The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota has a handy new analysis of municipal golf operations in that state that’s well worth a read.
As is generally the case when government gets into the business of business, it does a poor job because it doesn’t think like a business, doesn’t operate like a business, and has a completely different incentive set than businesses. That works the same way in golf as it does with printing services, vehicle fleet maintenance, payroll, accounting, IT, recreation centers, and any number of other functions that governments routinely get themselves into instead of actually focusing on their core missions and functions.
On that note, my favorite part of the paper is this quote from a Minnesota city administrator whose budget bleeding from golf operations got so bad that they finally privatized it (emphasis mine): “We didn’t run it like a business and that’s where we got in trouble. […] The new owners are expanding it and running it in a whole different manner.” I give him credit for coming to that realization once the wheels came off, but seriously now…why can’t public servants understand that upfront before wasting tax dollars on such a nonsensical idea?
What’s worse is that muni golf courses compete directly with private sector businesses and are usually revenue losers (read: subsidized by all taxpayers, mostly non-golfers). So instead of encouraging robust private sector competition and tax revenues flowing in from successful golf businesses, government does the opposite—it tries to run the private courses out of business with its own tax-exempt enterprises, which are staffed with employees reaping generous (and unsustainable) pension and benefit programs on the taxpayer dime.
Something I said back in March is worth repeating:
At a time when state and local budget shortfalls are mounting and public officials are facing inevitable and politically painful cuts in areas like education, safety and health care spending, how policymakers could possibly continue to justify governments being in the golf business (or any other type of commercial activity, for that matter) is beyond me. Since when is cheap golf a public good that should be subsidized by taxpayers at large? Since when is operating a golf course considered a core competency of government or an inherently governmental function? There’s no nuance needed here—government-run golf courses are unjustifiable under any stretch of the imagination and should be sold, spun off, or turned over to private operation, plain and simple.
For more on getting government out of the golf business, see this Reason study on golf course privatization.