Industrial revenue bonds were denounced yesterday at a congressional hearing as useless and costly economic incentives, but they also were defended as catalysts for creating jobs and revitalizing depressed areas.
Praise and criticism were heaped out in generous portions as the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee began its first congressional inquiry into the tax-emempt bonds, which suddenly have become a widely used method of financing everything from topless go-go nightspots to textile factories.
"Industrial revenue bonds are an unwarranted intrusion by local or state government in the free economy," said Oregon's treasurer, Clay Myers. According to a bipartisan state panel, Myers said, "the [bonds'] promised benefits were not achieved in any significant degree. Also, the panel found that IRBs do not accomplish their primary purpose of increasing employment or economic independence."
But spirited support for the controversial bonds came from Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter and the executive director of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce.
For Mississippi, which introduced the concept of tax-exmept economic financing in the 1930s, the bonds have "meant more jobs and meant the creation of wealth," Winter said.
He acknowledge there have been abuses around the national but not in Mississippi, he insisted, because the state has limited such financing to industrial projects.
Many states, however, have put no restrictions on how the bonds can be used. As a result they have been used to finance racquetball courts, K mart stores, McDonald's restaurants, corporate aircraft -- and a topless establishment in Philadelphia.
According to a newly published Congressional Budget Office study, financing through IRBs has risen to more than $8 billion annually, in large part because conventional loans are so expensive. The CBO estimated that by 1986 the bonds, because they are tax-free, could cost the U.S. Treasury as much as $4.4 million in lost tax revenue.
It was against this backdrop that the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee decided to take a close look at the creature Congress created in 1968. But panel members looking for consensus were bound to be disappointed by what they heard yesterday.
What they discovered was that the value of IRBs is in the eye of the beholder.
In Oregon, they take a very jaundiced look. So does Robert L. Miller, the owner of a small supermarket chain in southwestern Ohio, who told the subcommittee that a new K mart to be built in Eaton with IRB financing would mean "unfair competition subsidized by the government, all to the disadvantage and injury of small-business people who have devoted their lives to the community."
But the director of Ohio's Department of Economic and Community Development, James A. Duerk, said: "We in Ohio are flatly opposed to any attempt to restrict the use of industrial revenue bonds. . . . IRBs in Ohio have helped us keep people off welfare."
Downtown Memphis was able to halt its long decline and begin an impressive revitalization through IRB financing, testified John Dudas, executive director of the Memphis Center City Commission.
Rep. Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), former chairman of the oversight panel, has been a harsh critic of IRB financing.The new chairman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), represents Harlem, whose business leaders have begun to turn to IRBs as a potential means of financing while other economic aid programs are threatened with extinction by the Reagan administration.
In a moment of unfortunate timing for Rangel, he was called for a vote on the House floor just as Louis A. Malave, executive director of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce went to the microphone to make an impassioned defense of IRBs.
The hearings will conclude today.