Statement by John C. Mozena, president of the Center for Economic Accountability, on preexisting PGA Tour subsidies in St. John’s County, Fla:
Taxpayers in Florida will soon be subsidizing efforts to make a deadly regime more respectable on the global stage.
Before that happens, elected officials in St. John’s County, Fla. should unwind preexisting economic development subsidy deals with the PGA Tour that will put St. Augustine-area taxpayers in the position of helping Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s repressive regime purchase respectability, 18 holes at a time.
Right now, the taxpayers of St. John’s County are on the hook for millions of dollars to the PGA Tour thanks to economic development subsidy deals in 2017 to upgrade the Tour’s headquarters and 2021 to expand its TV studios there. At the time, local leaders framed the deal as supporting a local nonprofit organization.
However, the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s effective acquisition of the PGA Tour in its campaign to “unify the game of golf, on a global basis” has fundamentally changed the nature of the deal, putting St. Augustine-area residents in the position of supporting a deadly regime. The Saudi Arabian government has been publicly tied to a long litany of abuses that range from denying basic human rights to its own citizens, to complicity in the effective enslavement of immigrant workers, to the murder of dissidents and critics such as journalist Jamal Kashoggi, to potential complicity in the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The average golf fan or business has the ability to make their own decision on whether they will continue to engage with the PGA Tour in its new and unexpected Saudi era, but St. John’s County taxpayers are stuck supporting the new model whether they like it or not. From what we now know about the Tour’s plans moving forward, it seems clear that the TV studios those taxpayers are helping build will become a critical tool in the ongoing effort to “sport-wash” the Saudi kingdom, obscuring its abuses behind the glitz and glamour of sports.
St. John’s County leaders should make every legal effort to unwind the government’s fiscal entanglements in the business of the PGA Tour and treat it like any other corporation in the county. Any money budgeted for those subsidies should instead be returned to taxpayers, or used to fund basic public services that benefit the people of St. Augustine rather than the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Politicians and voters around the country should learn a lesson from this situation: Tying taxpayers to a particular business or industry through economic development subsidy deals regularly backfires, often with spectacular results. Whether it’s a sudden change of ownership that brings new and unwanted partners to the table, an unexpected shift in business climate that leaves taxpayers holding the bag for unfulfilled promises, an “entrepreneur” who turns out to be better at grift than business development or any number of other unforeseen circumstances, the outcome of these deals can be disastrous. Economic development subsidy deals hold as much — or even more — risk as any other investment in a particular business, but they regularly receive far less due diligence or skeptical oversight than any private-sector investment decision.
The PGA Tour’s subsidies were a bad deal to begin with that made no economic sense for the region’s taxpayers. (Note: See the CEA’s 2021 op-ed on that topic here.) With the Saudi announcement, this deal now includes new and complex costs that go far beyond the dollars at stake. Elected officials should unwind these subsidies as quickly and completely as legally possible, and local voters should be asking hard questions about how they were put in this situation to begin with.
About the Center for Economic Accountability
The Center for Economic Accountability (CEA) is a nonpartisan and independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to advance economic opportunity for all by promoting transparency, accountability and free-market-based reform of state and local economic development initiatives across America. Headquartered in Michigan, the CEA was founded in 2018. For more information, visit https://economicaccountability.org/.