WASHINGTON - The government's money woes are likely to keep tax writers from including permanent extensions for two popular bond programs in the final version of President Clinton's budget and tax package, lobbyists said this week.
But Clinton's plan for expanding bond use in enterprise zones, although it is another revenue-loser, will probably survive because it would bring in crucial votes from House members who represent depressed areas, the sources said.
Finding enough revenue to offset the cost of bond provisions will be a huge problem for House and Senate conferees when they begin hammering out the final version at the package later this month, because political pressures will force them to scale back Clinton's biggest money-generating proposal: the energy tax.
"They are in a royal revenue pickle," said Frank Shafroth, director of policy and federal relations for the National League of Cities. "This is going to be a conference where they're going to take a chisel out and try and shave everywhere they can."
The House bill contains President Clinton's plan for a BTU tax, a levy on fossil fuels based on their heat content, which would raise about $70 billion.
The BTU provision is the primary source of revenue offsetting Clinton's investment proposals, which are also part of the House bill. They include creating enterprise zones, easing volume cap restrictions on high-speed rail bonds, and permanently extending several expired tax breaks, including the low-income housing tax credit and the authority to issue mortgage revenue bonds and small-issue industrial development bonds.
The Senate bill, on the other hand, contains only a 4.3 cents-per-gallon increase in the existing federal tax on transportation fuels, which would raise only about $21 billion.
Because Senate tax writers had much less money to spend on revenue-losing proposals, they eliminated Clinton's proposals for enterprise zones and high-speed rail bonds, and scaled back the extensions of the mortgage bond and IDB exemptions, which expired June 30, 1992. Under the Senate bill, the new termination date for the exemptions would be June 30, 1994.
Any compromise reached by the conferees on the energy tax will probably look much more like the Senate's version, and thus raise a relatively small amount of money, lobbyists said. That means the most likely outcome for the mortgage bond and IDB exemption is an extension through June 30, 1994, as the Senate proposes.
"There's always a chance that there will be permanent extensions for MRBs and IDBs, but money will be tight and I think it will be difficult," said a lobbyist for a municipality. "Clearly, the overall direction is to move toward the Senate bill, which means fewer tax increases."
Not only are the mortgage bond and IDB extensions likely to be temporary, but "I wouldn't be surprised if [conferees] cut them back further." said a tax lobbyist.
Several lobbyists also said the need to cut costs does not bode well for the House bill's provision on high-speed rail bonds, which would end the requirement that 25% of each issue receive an allocation under the private-activity volume cap.
But enterprise zones appear to be a different matter, lobbyists said. Even though creating the zones costs money, they are likely to be in the final tax package because the conferees are aware they need the votes of the Congressional Black Caucus, which strongly supports the zone plan.
Keeping enterprise zones in the tax bill "is the principal way to pull in the 38-member Black Caucus." said a housing lobbyist.
The House bill would create 110 enterprise zones, economically distressed areas where tax incentives would be offered to lure businesses from other areas or start up new businesses. The 110 zones include 10 so-called empowerment zones that would receive a large array of federal benefits and 100 enterprise communities that would receive a smaller number of incentives.
For both types of zones, the proposal would permit the issuance of a new category of exempt-facility bond to finance businesses in the zones. The bonds would be bank-eligible, regardless of the size of the issuer. In addition, 75% of each bond issue sold for businesses that are more than 50% owned by residents of empowerment zones would be exempt from the volume cap. All other bond issues would be 50% exempt from the cap.
In the end, the question of whether extensions are permanent and Clinton's high-speed rail plan survives is likely to depend on how strongly administration officials push for those proposals, lobbyists said.
"This conference is a three-handed game." involving not just the House and Senate, but also the White House, said John T. McEvoy, executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies. "The administration really has the trump card, and we have to see how they play it."