WASHINGTON - The House Ways and Means Committee approved legislation yesterday that would completely exempt high-speed rail bond issues from the private-activity volume cap.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. William Coyne, D-Pa., was one of several small bills the panel approved yesterday during a meeting begun Wednesday afternoon and held solely to consider committee members' favorite tax amendments.
Other bills approved by the committee included one offered by Rep. Beryl Anthony, D-Ark., that would allow state and local issuers to avoid yield-restriction requirements if they comply with arbitrage rebate rules.
Another was sponsored by Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., that would allow New York City issue tax-exempt bonds to expand the offices of the United Nations and keep the agency from moving some departments out of the city.
Because the tax measures were not attached to any large "must-do" tax package, congressional aides and tax lobbyists said the bills probably had little chance of enactment. They likened the unusual session to one the committee held two years ago, when it drafted a never-enacted bill located down with members' amendments.
"I think [this] all really is just an exercise to keep members happy," said a housing lobbyists who asked not to be identified.
During a lull in the proceedings on Wednesday, Ways and Means panel Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-III., looked around at his colleagues and said, "Any more amendments? Come on, let's have some fun."
The high-speed rail bond proposal is designed to expand a 1987 law that exempts 75% of each issue of that kind from the volume cap.
Issuers found the 1987 law to be of little use because high-speed rail issues tend to be so large that even obtaining a cap allocation for only 25% of an issue is extremely difficult.
New York officials had been pushing the bond amendment for the United Nations in an attempt to head off a German effort to lure some of the agency's offices to Bonn. The German government has been trying to find a way to revitalize the city since the capital was moved to Berlin.
Germany has offered rent-free office space in Bonn to the United Nations Childrens Fund, the United Nations Redevelopment Program, the United Nations Population Fund, and the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
To keep the United Nations from moving those departments to Germany, New York officials want to offer the agency incentives that would include additional office space financed with tax-exempt bonds. The Tax Reform Act of 1986, however, prevents tax-exempt issuance for that purpose.
The problem with the tax law hinges on the definition of "private entities," which are prohibited from benefiting substantially from the use of tax-exempt bond proceeds.
Before 1986, a private entity was defined as an entity that engaged in a private trade or business. Because the United Nations did not fit that definition, the offices it now uses were financed with tax-exempt bonds years ago.
But the 1986 tax act changed the definition to one that covers the United Nations, because it includes any entity other than a state or local government.
Under Rep. Rangel's proposal, bonds issued "to finance office buildings by the U.S. and or its agencies and instrumentalities would qualify as tax-exempt private-activity bonds" and would be subject to the $50 per person volume cap.
"I cannot imagine that Congress specifically considered the effect the new technical definitions would have on the United Nations," Nadine B. Hack, the head of New York's Commission for the United Nations and Consular Corps., wrote in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee last month.
"It is clear that the United Nations is not a private business. It is an international organization of governments, fully exempt under federal and state law from real estate and other taxes," Ms. Hack added.
Before the measure was approved, however, Hank Guttman, the staff director of the Joint tax Committee, said he was concerned about the bill because it would benefit only one entity, the United Nations. The tax committees have tried to avoid approving such "rifle shots" since 1986.
Treasury's assitant secretary for tax policy Fred Goldberg said he was concerned that by allowing bonds to be issued for United Nations offices, Congress would be pressured into expanding the tax code to allow state and local governments to build foreign embassies in their jurisdictions.
"The issue we have is, where do you draw the line?" Mr. Goldberg said. "I'm concerned about the precedent this is setting."
But Rep. Rangel said he disagreed with Mr. Goldberg. "I think the U.N. can rise above the category of just another embassy," he said.
Another amendment approved by the committee yesterday would exempt the St. Paul Port Authority from tax law rules that bar it from refunding various bond issues totaling $186 million, some of which are in default.
The bill would waive rules against simultaneous issuance that prevent the authority from refunding all the bond issues together. it would also waive arbitrage rebate rules that would force the authority to lower its port fees to conform with the new lower bond rate it would gain through the refunding process.