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Golf's downturn leaves taxpayers holding the bag

Desert golfing in Tucson, Ariz.
Source: Gill Kenny | Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau
Desert golfing in Tucson, Ariz.

There's a lot of talk these days about government "investment" in our infrastructure, education, and even recreation. And while questions about how we fund our roads and schools have become prominent public debates for years, government investment in places like public parks, pools, etc. is an issue that often slides under the radar.

But that's not the case for city managers across the country who are shouldering the ever-growing burden of municipal golf courses. The downtrend in interest and participation in golf began during the 2008 economic downturn, got worse when popular icon Tiger Woods fell from grace, and it hasn't really rebounded despite the slow economic recovery. Some cities are dealing with millions of dollars of losses from the courses they either built or bought from private owners when golf was hot in the late 1990s. And stopping the bleeding isn't easy because even if the cities do try to sell the courses, there just aren't all that many private golf course investors out there to buy them.

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Some cities are responding the same way they do when government-run schools begin to fail; they're throwing more money at the problem. Public course proponents often claim that if the cities just spent more money to upgrade course amenities, they'd draw more customers. If that sounds like doubling down on a bad bet to you, you're not alone.

And there are so many troubling questions to ask. Even in the best of times, are golf courses the kind of thing taxpayers should be subsidizing? And what about the privately owned, (and taxpaying), courses? Should the government be competing with them directly? What more essential city services suffer when more money has to be diverted to prop up a public golf course? And finally, are public courses really a boost to the middle class when the price of playing the sport is still quite high wherever you decide to play?

But advocates for lesser government do have a reason to be thankful for municipal golf courses. That's because their continuing struggles provide a much better backdrop for what should be a productive bipartisan discussion about government spending. Even the biggest Keynesians among us are much more likely to at least recognize the moral hazards and other hard questions that almost everyone could ask about taxpayers funding golf courses. Most of us can see that funding a golf course, while marketed as something that benefits an entire city, often just gives richer residents more recreational options. That's opposed to the exponentially larger number of people who can at least theoretically use public pools, playgrounds, basketball courts, etc.

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From there, it just might be possible to expand the discussion to the other government "investments" that border on crony capitalism or worse. I wouldn't hold my breath over issues like public schools or sanitation, but maybe agricultural subsidies or the Export-Import Bank will come under a little more scrutiny from your more liberal friends if your conversation progresses well.

In the meantime if you really are a proponent of private sector investment, I think you might want to put together a proposal for ways to develop government-owned lands with a lot of grass and just a little sand. I hear there's a growing supply.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.