Widespread reports that the Reagan administration may curtail industrial revenue bonds, a popular source of low-interest business loans used by local governments to foster economic development, have sparked a scramble in Maryland for quick approval of millions of dollars of those bonds.
Nowhere has the scramble been more intense than in Baltimore, an old port city that has pegged its renaissance to federal money and programs that it fears may vanish under Reagan administration cutbacks. In two days of marathon meetings this week, Mayor William Donald Schaefer and the City Council hastily reviewed, debated and then approved 81 bond authorizations worth $715 million -- nearly three times what the city approved in all of 1980 -- including some that listed no specific project.
In most of the state's largest counties, the same sort of crush occurred this week as businesmen, lawyers and developers panicked at the prospect of losing the IRBs, as the tax-exempt bonds are called, and dumped hundreds of requests for them on equally anxious local governments.
"I have a box of resolutions sitting on my desk filled with requests of IRBs," said Samuel Wynkoop Jr., the council administrator in Prince George's County, which held a special session this week to approve 18 requests worth $94 million. "They've been coming in all week by courier. They were coming in, I'm telling you, in scads. I'd have lawyers hanging out outside my door saying, 'Can you just add this to the council agenda?' Our bond counsel was having a hard time keeping track of them."
The National Association of Counties (NACO) said similar concerns are sweeping through many other states, fanned by widespread reports that the Reagan administration was about to have legislation introduced in Congress to eliminate or curtail IRBs immediately as part of efforts to balance the federal budget.
IRBs are issued by local governments but they are essentially transactions between a lender, usually a bank, and a business. The bank lends money at below-market rates because the interest paid back to it on an IRB transaction is exempt from federal taxes.
Because sky-high interest rates have dramatically increased the use of IRBs in the last few years -- from $3.5 billion nationwide in 1979 to $8.5 billion a year later -- the U.S. Treasury has lost a tremendous number of tax dollars, a situation the Reagan administration would like to change by making exemptions harder to obtain.
According to officials in the Treasury Department, Reagan does not want to eliminate the IRBs, but in the next few weeks will propose several regulations to curtail their use. The primary one would be forcing businesses to choose between using an IRB and getting a lower-interest rate or obtaining regular financing and getting corporate tax breaks under the new tax laws -- but not both.
However, the officials stressed that IRBs would not be eliminated and that no changes would occur immediately -- despite the reports to the contrary.
"I don't know where these rumors originated of changes effective Oct. 1 or Oct. 15," said one Treasury Department official who asked not to be named.
According to NACO officials, Maryland seems to be scrambling more than most. "I've had at least 50 calls in the last few days about the rumors but most of them were from people wondering if they should start pushing stuff through quickly," said Martharose Laffey, a tax and finance specialist at NACO. "I've been telling people not to go hog wild like Baltimore has done."
In the Virginia suburbs local governments reported no unusual interest recently in IRBs. The District has not been affected. Because of complexities in the home rule charter, the city has not issued any IRBs for business.
In Maryland, on the other hand, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's spent several days this week rushing to give approval to scores of IRB proposals, in many cases with little or no review.
In Baltimore's case, staff in several city departments spent much of last weekend and Columbus Day getting bond bills, most dozens of pages long, ready for City Council action on Tuesday and Wednesday. Extra printers were hired to help print the bills.
On Wednesday, after a 12-hour work session, the council approved 81 bond authorizations worth $715 million, including $350 million of bonds that do not identify a developer, bank or specific project but were simply put in for future use in case IRBs are eliminated.