Springfield, MO

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Opinion: The upside of privatizing public services

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Growing up, I regularly hit the links at the Forest Park municipal golf course in St. Louis. In my high school and college years in the late 1980s, I noticed the quality of the course was dramatically improving.

At the same time, the city of St. Louis outsourced management of the golf course to a private company. As that outsourcing, or privatization, of the golf course has remained, the quality of the course has continued to improve.

That same type of story is repeated throughout Missouri. Good government need not be big government, and the public sector does not have to provide public services in every case. There is a role for private delivery, often regulated, of public services. In many cases, the private sector can deliver those services more affordably and at a higher quality than the government.

Southwest Missouri is home to one of America’s most enterprising privatization projects. Branson Airport is America’s only fully private commercial airport. In a capitalist system, not every business attempt succeeds, and the Branson Airport might yet fail. I hope not. But if it fails, private investors will be out their own money – unlike Mid-America Airport in southern Illinois, where local governments have had to continually fund that little-used white elephant.

On the other end of the spectrum is City Utilities, Springfield’s municipal behemoth. Missouri’s other large cities are primarily served by private utilities. Those private utilities pay taxes, face more regulations, earn a return on investment and still charge comparable rates to CU. Springfield needs to consider following the decade-old example of Florissant and divest itself of its public utility.

Research has shown privatization works best when the driving force is pragmatism, not ideology. Politicians and voters can still debate what services should be provided as part of the eternal wrangling over the role of government in society.

But privatization is more about how those services are provided, not whether they should be. Unless you genuinely believe as many people as possible should be on the public payroll, like the big-city political machines of yesteryear, then a government service you depend upon or care about likely can be addressed with privatization.

There are certain roles, such as police powers, that always should belong to the government. Furthermore, the role of government regulation in many privatized public services is important, such as regulation of private utilities. Finally, in some instances, such as animal control, private partnerships with nonprofit groups might be preferred to for-profit companies.

Whatever way you look at it, there are numerous examples. Take CoxHealth operating ambulance services in Christian County or the existence of private libraries in Taney County to see where privatization can provide better services at lower costs for Missourians. Just play golf at Forest Park for evidence.

David Stokes is the director of local government policy at St. Louis-based Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy. He can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]


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