“Then let them play golf”

“Then let them play golf”

In a time when Nebraskans are advised to mostly stay cooped up at home, I’m sure somebody is happy that Lincoln’s public golf courses currently plan to remain open during the COVID-19 state of emergency in Nebraska.

Undoubtedly, some fresh, socially distant air might do us all some good right now. But in this moment, the major concerns of Nebraskans and Americans are preventing the spread of an infectious disease for which there is no vaccine, and the sudden effects of a likely global recession. In such a scenario, spending tax dollars on golf courses seems more on par with the famous expression, “let them eat cake.”

Public golf courses could be justified as being recreational facilities just like public parks and other sporting fields. However, golf facilities frequently require more real estate and maintenance than a youth sports field or a walking path. An 18-hole course takes significant land off the tax rolls and costs money to staff and keep looking like a golf course.

Golfers, for their part, are willing to pay fees that other park-goers may not be interested in paying for access. But the fees paid at public golf courses do not typically result in cities breaking even.

Communities across Nebraska have struggled with this cost of ownership. North Platte’s Iron Eagle golf course has lost the city money for years, forcing North Platte to tap into other revenue sources to make up the difference. Bayard is trying to sell its public course to cut its losses, and Columbus has faced repair bills that required help from FEMA for its Quail Run golf course, which was impacted by the 2019 floods.

Some economic development and tourism advocates may argue that a community has to offer a golf course as an amenity for visitors and businesses, even if no private developer is able to do so. After all, private businesses also struggle to turn a profit operating golf courses as interest in the sport has declined.

And just because taxpayer-funded amenities lose money does not mean they are of poor quality. The state and local governments invest in many financially-struggling projects that people may enjoy nonetheless, including the Ralston Arena and the Nebraska State Fair. Furthermore, voters often approve these projects themselves, though frequently with promises that they will be money-makers that put their community on the map and even help lower taxes.

Certainly, government must sometimes step in to provide services that would not otherwise be provided by the private sector or by nonprofits, or that the voters say they want.

But is golf in the must-have category? And what do policymakers have to say no to in order to say yes to golf facilities and other Shiny Objects?

In Omaha, the city created an “enhanced employment district” to kickback receipts from a new occupation tax to the developers of the privately-owned Topgolf driving range that is opening near Westroads Mall. Supporters of the policy might argue only customers of the facility will have to pay the tax. But if they’re willing to pay an extra 1.75% to hit golf balls, then why can’t they just pay the company responsible through their posted prices?

For that matter, if people are willing to pay an extra 1.75% tax, why should that tax not be used to fund concerns of all taxpayers in Omaha, such as public health, roads, and emergency services? Why should golfers get more say about where their tax dollars go than non-golfers?

These questions might sound minuscule or even petty when things are going well. But at some point, our policymakers have to set priorities keeping in mind that things will not always be going well.

In a crisis, running a taxpayer-subsidized golf facility means fewer resources for what government really ought to be doing: saving lives, upholding justice, and maintaining a climate for economic opportunity.

Golf may be an easy target, with its reputation for appealing to a higher-income audience, but it’s far from the only Shiny Object that comes with an opportunity cost to core government functions. Whether we want to be better prepared when emergencies happen, or to protect taxpayers in the aftermath, at some point, we must choose between the things that are nice-to-have and those that are truly a must-have.

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