As they returend to business this week, members of Congress may have found their mailboxes overflowing with at least 500 protests against proposed limits on state and local use of tax- exempt bonds to benefit private developers. Members of the Ways and Means Committee will probably already have received a phone call from a well-connected bond lawyer, underwriter or banker from their district, and on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning they will be visited by a delegation of these worthies.
These events, far from being spontaneous, have been carefully orchestrated by "The Coalition," a group of financial intermediaries and businessmen directed by a member of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. The coalition's immediate aim is to defeat a bill sponsored by Rep. J. J. Pickle that would place further restrictions on the use of federally tax-exempt bonds for subsidizing private business.
Congressmen should not waste much time reading the mail ginned up by the coalition. As its organizers noted in a recent memorandum, "the important point is volume of letters, not the substance." But they ought to treat skeptically the general message that anyone who supports restricting the various kinds of state and local tax subsidies is an enemy of economic development.
The coalition will have no trouble trotting out local developers and employers to express deep gratitude for the interest-cost savings provided by tax-exempt financing. They may even claim they would have located elsewhere if their jurisdiction hadn't been so obliging. But studies have documented that financing is at most a minor factor in firms' location decisions and that, since all localities can offer the same benefit, tax-exempt financing only raises the price of the bidding war.
Subsidizing one type of development at the cost of others doesn't create new jobs. It means that other, perhaps more economically justifiable projects don't get financed. Private purpose tax-exempts now add $10 billion a year to the federal deficit and, despite new limits put into law last year, are apparently still increasing. That means higher interest costs for all borrowers.
Congressmen who are really interested in economic development will support not only the relatively minor limits in the Pickle bill, but the stronger measures that the administration favors for curtailing this uncontrolled drain on scarce tax dollars.