In my last post, I questioned a New York state decision to award a $200,000 development grant to a privately-owned RV campground. The 300-site proposal has yet to complete public hearings, has not had an environmental impact study and has generated a considerable amount of local opposition–so why has the state already decided to support a commercial, presumably profit-making enterprise with its residents’ tax dollars?
But this is hardly the most egregious example of government meddling in the free market. Far more common than such favoring of a particular private enterprise, and ultimately more damaging on several fronts, is government use of tax dollars in direct competition with the private sector. Such spending is contrary to free market principles, diverts tax money from more critical–and usually underfunded–government programs, and typically is wasteful to boot.
Take, for example, the recent efforts by allegedly conservative South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to build a 176-site campground in Custer State Park, for a whopping $9.8 million. That per-site cost projection of $55,000 is roughly twice the going rate of new park construction in the commercial sector, and private campgrounds typically include more amenities in their construction budgets than do their public counterparts, further increasing the disparity. On the other hand, Noem’s inflated price tag is right in line with the projections I used to see when reviewing Virginia State Parks budgets for campground construction, so bloated government spending on such projects seems par for the course across the country.
Once built, such government-underwritten campgrounds typically offer lower rates to RV owners than their privately-owned competitors, who have to charge enough to pay off their unsubsidized (except in New York) construction loans and mortgages. At the same time, the inadequate revenue such public facilities generate historically have failed to cover ongoing maintenance and repairs, resulting in the current nationwide backlog of deferred maintenance that runs into the billions of dollars. While user fees should not be expected to cover the costs of public facilities open to all–that’s what taxes are for–it’s not asking too much to have RV owners pay the market rate for their more privileged recreational choices.
There is a place for government spending on outdoor recreation–for activities or resources that the private sector can’t provide. Hiking and dirt-biking trails, back-country shelters, reforestation and erosion control projects, scenic drives and large man-made lakes for boating–all come to mind as appropriate uses of tax dollars, because if the state or federal government doesn’t do them, no one will. But campgrounds? The number of deep-pocketed investors falling all over themselves to get into the business should send a clear signal to the Kristi Noems of the world to keep their government mitts to themselves.