IN AN EFFORT to relieve the pressure on their sagging treasuries, municipalities and non-taxable organizations have become increasingly attracted to lease-backs and other innovative financing deals. These techniques provide a short-term windfall to cities, universities and other potential users. But they accomplish that by locking the federal treasury into long-term revenue losses that are beyond the reach of executive or congressional control.
Interest in lease-back arrangements is spreading like wildfire. Major investment and accounting firms have begun touting "privatization" as a thrifty way for public and nonprofit agencies to finance or refinance their properties. Deals already consummated or under consideration extend from Navy cargo ships and Air Force jets to local jails, city halls and even the Orange Bowl. Here in town, city officials are being pressured by Goldman Sachs and E. F. Hutton to consider lease-back arrangements for public housing, municipal buildings and university facilities.
Lease-back arrangements--and other innovations such as combining tax-exempt municipal bonds with federal deposit insurance--amount to peddling federal tax breaks and other subsidies to private investors. They, in turn, pass back some of the savings to city governments and other tax-exempt entities. The most lucrative deals pyramid up to five different federal tax breaks: tax-exempt financing, accelerated depreciation, investment tax credits, historic renovation or rehabilitation tax credits and the deductibility of interest paid. Both parties to the transaction benefit, but not because of any gains from private- sector efficiency. In fact, the total cost of the deal is substantially increased by the profits taken by the various intermediaries. The only "savings" come from transferring costs to the federal treasury.
This week Rep. J. J. Pickle and other Ways amd Means Committee members introduced a bill limiting the federal tax incentives that could be claimed on these deals and tightening rules that allow agencies to disguise lease-back schemes as service contracts. The agencies will still be able to enter into leases, but they won't be tempted to do so unless the deals offer real advantages in terms of efficiency.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski promised prompt action on the lease- back measure as well as on an earlier bill ending the insured tax-exempt bonds. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole, who wondered if leasing out the Senate Chamber for awhile might not be a bad idea, promised to follow suit. Municipalities are facing tough times, thanks to the recession and federal aid reductions. But if federal help is to be provided, it should be voted by Congress, not arranged by private investment firms.