Golf leader Mona: Tax setback not final
By ALEX MICELI  | January 15, 2018
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As chief executive of the World Golf Foundation, Steve Mona plays a key role in the We Are Golf initiative.

In a story published Friday in Morning Read (“Golf will take big hit with tax reform,” Jan. 12, http://bit.ly/2DnZJAm), we indicated that Mona would not comment about the new tax reform bill and its effect on golf-course owners in the United States.

Mona was unavailable for comment when we called on Thursday, and the lines of communication between Morning Read and his staff got crossed.

I asked Mona if he would be willing to talk with Morning Read about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and its effects on the golf industry. A key provision of the legislation relating to golf is that the 50-percent business deduction for club memberships, guest fees and entertainment has been eliminated.

As background, in early 2017, We Are Golf, a collection of golf organizations – Club Managers Association of America, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, National Golf Course Owners Association, PGA Tour, PGA of America, U.S. Golf Association, U.S Golf Manufacturers Council and the World Golf Foundation – compiled a list of issues that they wanted to be addressed. Among them:

  • Waters of the United States: An Obama-era regulation, WOTUS essentially considered any pool of water to be under EPA regulations, which We Are Golf said unfairly affected many golf courses.
  • H-2B visa program: Further restrictions for foreign nationals to work in the U.S. temporarily, as the Trump Administration proposed, would make finding seasonal employees more difficult for golf courses and maybe leave jobs unfilled.
  • PHIT Act: Legislation pending in Congress would allow Americans to use pre-tax medical accounts to pay for certain qualified sports and fitness expenses.
  • Including golf in disaster relief: When golf was deemed by legislators to be ineligible for disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was instead lumped in with massage and tattoo parlors, the game’s leaders united to form We Are Golf.
  • Conservation easements: Beneficial IRS treatment of easements for golf-course owners.

Each of these issues affected different constituencies in the golf industry, but the disaster-relief snub was the reason We Are Golf was founded in 2009. Nearly a decade later, the group still struggles to be recognized by Congress with favorable legislative status.

The group’s leaders visited Capitol Hill in April for National Golf Day, the annual pilgrimage to Washington to meet with members of Congress on behalf of the game (“With your help, golf’s voice can be heard in D.C.,” April 27, http://bit.ly/2EF2bla); “Can Trump make golf great again?” Jan. 23, http://bit.ly/2B0x8Ow). We Are Golf had found relief from WOTUS only when the Trump Administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency, revoked the rule.

Success or failure of We Are Golf’s initiatives hung in the balance when the tax bill started to receive scrutiny in late fall. In the draft of the bill, golf courses were to receive special treatment under the conservation-easement provision. However, the tax-exempt status of the PGA Tour, LPGA and PGA of America, which are non-profits, suddenly was on the chopping block. The 50-percent entertainment deduction as it applied to golf also was being threatened, with little time – not enough, as it turned out – to save it.

We have edited this conversation with Mona for brevity.

Alex Miceli: What happened on Capitol Hill and in this tax bill?

Steve Mona: We probably put more effort into this issue than any that we have been involved with since we took on the responsibility for the oversight of We Are Golf in 2010.  And when I say we, I'm talking about a number of our member organizations, and I'll get into that in a minute. Our lobby firm, Forbes Tate Partners in Washington, D.C., has put a huge amount of effort into this. So apropos to a canned sort of the inference that we were asleep at the switch or whatever, that is so far from the truth. This was [an] extraordinarily expedited process that Congress took to put this tax-reform bill into place and pass it. This was not an open process; in fact, there were no hearings. Even members of Congress outside of the committees with direct oversight – the Republican members, I should say – really didn't have any direct feedback. Certainly, that was true of a lot of interest groups, ours included, although Forbes Tate Partners was able to have conversations on our behalf with the appropriate people. Toward the end of the process, this whole tax-exemption issue all of a sudden became part of the tax bill. So, whereas when we started with this, this wasn't part of what we were focused on at all because it wasn't even part of what was being discussed. Now all of a sudden, about midway through, now we're dealing with it. Due to the efforts of the PGA Tour and the PGA of America and the LPGA, the tax-exempt status of those organizations and others were not revoked. The next point has to do with conservation easements. There was talk about it, and so that required some of our political capital to deal with that. Again, that wasn't part of what we originally thought we were dealing with. The next piece, which we were dealing with from the start, which is really where we put a lot of effort, with the fact that golf courses are included with some other businesses as being ineligible for certain small-business tax credits in disaster-relief legislation.


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AM: Isn't that actually the reason why We Are Golf was started?

SM: You'll remember Katrina. That's really where the impetus for We Are Golf came in the first place, and so that's been an issue that has been on our agenda since that time. Even though golf courses are on that list of, for lack of a better term, ineligible businesses, since Forbes Tate Partners has been our firm, we have successfully on a one-off basis kept golf courses off of the ineligible list. So, we have effectively done that on behalf of the golf industry, but we don't put press releases out on this. We were trying to get that off the list for good, so that we wouldn't have to deal with it every time some disaster-relief legislation came up.  But again, because of the closed nature of the process and the speed of the process, we really didn't even have much of an opportunity to make that argument. It's important for you to understand all the things we were dealing with. That was one of the main issues we were dealing with from the start, and we were really pushing hard. We didn't get it done. All these issues that were swirling around that we were dealing with, and different elements of the golf industry were dealing with different issues. For instance, I mentioned the PGA Tour, the PGA of America and the LPGA were dealing with the tax-exempt status. Let's go ahead and go to the tax deduction for business expenses. That effort was led by the NGCOA, and obviously that was another one that we weren't able to swing our way. However, I do want to make another point that is getting lost in all of the discussion, but we believe that because of the reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, that that is going to ultimately prove to be positive to the golf industry. Our logic is that there now is going to be more money available for companies to spend on their business in whatever form they choose. In some cases, it might be more retained earnings; it might be investment in facilities; it may be compensation to employees. That's a substantial amount of tax relief for businesses, many of whom use golf as a tool whether it be business development or entertainment or whatever. Our view is that that more than offsets the elimination of the entertainment-expense deduction. So, we'll see. Reasonable minds can disagree. Our view is that ultimately, there's a lot more money now – or will be, once the tax reform or the effects of the legislation are felt – throughout corporate America. There is more money that now has been freed up for investment within businesses than what was, quote, lost by the deduction, the elimination of the 50-percent tax benefit. That's going to be net positive for the golf industry. And that really hasn't been discussed.  

AM: When did you know that this 50-percent exemption was going to be out of the tax law?

SM: All this stuff started to become clear to us right before Christmas. I don't know the exact date. We knew when the bill was done what the implications were, so I don't know the exact date, but in that time frame right before Christmas.

AM: The NGCOA was running point on this, but did anybody run the numbers on how financially, the fact that the deduction would go away, how this would affect golf course owners?

SM: There was an attempt by Forbes Tate Partners, but you would just end up making an estimate, so we didn't feel comfortable. We didn't enter that into the discussion, i.e., this is going to cost X hundred million for golf, because we couldn't get an accurate number. 

AM: Has there been any analysis done on the reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and how financially that could help golf?

SM:  There is some being done now. I don't have a number for you, but there will be. You don't know exactly what companies are going to do with that tax savings. You could debate the issue, but the fact is there's going to be more money available now for businesses to spend because of the lower corporate tax rate. 

AM: Have you had conversations with corporate leaders and asked if this is going to be impactful or not?

SM: I have not directly, personally. I am aware of generally conversations that have been had, but it would be disingenuous to say that there's been some concentrated effort to do that. 

AM: What are you doing with your lobbying group to try to fix this that will be beneficial to golf and the golf course owners?

SM: There's what's called a technical fix when legislation, particularly legislation like this that was so comprehensive and was passed so quickly and involved so few people. Both of these issues that we have talked about – the inclusion of golf on the list of ineligible businesses, that we have been working on for years, and the deductibility, the business-expense deductibility – we are going to take our shots at both of those through the technical-fix process. Now what that looks like, whether we do it in a coalition or not, if and when we get a chance at it, I can't comment on any of that because I don't know. But I can assure you that both of those are at the top of our list of items that we are going to pursue through this technical-fix process. 

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli

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