While Congress debates what to do about the alleged abuses of low-interest, taxpayer-subsidized industrial revenue bonds, it might ponder the fate of mortgage revenue bonds, which also benefit from a subsidy.
Here is the story of those mortgage revenue bonds: After interest rates began their long climb upward, the bonds seemed the perfect vehicle for providing a pool of reasonably priced mortgage money for low- and moderate-income homebuyers.
But then stories began to trickle out about families with $100,000 in annual income qualifying for mortgage-bond money. Luxury condominiums were being sold with mortgage-bond money. When the trickle of stories became a flood, Congress put a host of limitations on the bonds.
Today no families earning $100,000 annually are benefiting from mortgage bonds. But neither are families earning $10,000 or $15,000. Since Jan. 1, not one mortgage revenue bond has been issued by state or local housing agencies, according to the Council of State Housing Agencies.
The moral of the story is clear: if industrial revenue bonds or IRBs come to be as tightly controlled by the federal government as mortgage revenue bonds, there probably will be no more abuses nor taxpayer-subsidized racquetball courts, golf courses or K marts, and certainly no more topless go-go nightspots or adult bookstores.
But small, capital-starved companies might not be able to use IRBs to undertake the modernization or expansion they need to stay competitive. And aging cities might not be able to use them to revive depressed areas that industry is leaving or avoiding.
The hearings on IRBs held last week by the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee provided abundant evidence that scrutiny of this proliferating business-subsidy program was overdue.
The hearings showed that big, rapidly expanding corporations, which ought to be able to find and afford their own conventional financing, were heavy users of the bonds. K mart, for example, has borrowed more than $200 million through IRB issues. (Locally, giant RCA, an $8 billion corporation, is dickering to get a $9.5 million IRB from the District government so NBC can expand its local TV and radio facilities on Nebraska Avenue NW.)
The hearings also demonstrated that IRBs were being used to promote suburban growth in the worst, strip-development tradition, often at the expense of already economically vulnerable downtown businesses.
Though with less certainty, the hearings appeared to indicate that the suddenly popular bonds were costing the U.S. Treasury more money in exempted taxes than they were in generation through the creation of new business.
The hearings also showed, again with some arguable evidence, that because the bonds had become such big business, (1980s issues totaled $8.4 billion), they were beginning to have an adverse impact on the entire $50 billion market for tax-exempts, which includes municipal bonds for schools, hospitals, libraries and other clearly public purposes. The lobby for municipal finance officers estimates that IRBs are adding $225 million to $210 million annually to the borrowing costs of tax exempts.
But there was another, more positive side of the story than came out during the hearings, though it was sometimes obscured by the self-serving arguments of IRB supporters, who were mobilized into action by the aggressive lobbying efforts of Kutak, Rock and Huie, the big bond-counseling firm whose headquarters is in Omaha.
The least self-serving story was probably the one told by Walter S. Bernheimer II, president of Hub Mail Advertising Service Inc. of Boston. Unfortunately Bernheimer wasn't able to appear, but his testimony became part of the record.
Hub is a relatively small business (annual sales of about $5 million) that has been family-owned since the 1920s. Because its downtown location was inefficient and two miles from its warehouse, Hub began looking for another location.
It would have been easy for Hub to follow its competitors and find a cheap place outside the city. But because half of its 225-employe force lived in the city, the company wanted to stay there.
Hub found what it wanted in Dorchester, in a decaying area about a mile from the new John F. Kennedy Library on bleack Columbia Point. But Hub, undercapitalized like many small businesses, couldn't qualify for a conventional loan.
Help came in the form of the Massachusetts Industrial Finance Agency, which was able to provide a low-interest industrial revenue bond and partially guarantee the loan.
Hub was able to stay in Boston, and its predominantly blue-collar workers who live in the city were able to keep their jobs.
Hub president Bernheimer said it best, even if he didn't actually testify:
"I believe it makes a great deal of sense to help America's smaller companies to grow in these times of high inflation and record interest rates. We should encourage expansions like that of Hub Mail, expansions that will both foster investment and lower unemployment, thereby increasing our nation's productivity."
Probably only a minority of IRB users can tell stories as compelling as Hub's Bernheimer. The problem is that the slicker-tongued majority may command more attention.