DALLAS -- After two years of talk, Texas may soon take its first major step toward starting a controversial school bond bank program by hiring a financial adviser.
The Texas Bond Review Board could decide at its Thursday meeting which of the eight applicants it will hire to help structure the $750 million program.
"We may try to decide Thursday," said Wardeleen Belvin, special assistant to Lieut. Gov. Bob Bullock, who sits on the five-person board, "if not then, I don't think it will be delayed more than a month."
One of the advier's first jobs will be to help structure the bond bank so that many of the state's 1,054 districts will want to use it for capital financing.
Who will use the program has been the most perplexing question for the state and the most worrisome issue for Texas-based brokerages that believe a bond bank has few benefits to offer districts now able to sell their bonds with a cost-free triple-A rating secured by the state's Permanent School Fund.
"It's hard to envision how a pool program is going to sell at a better rate than most schools can get on their own today," said Dale Henderson, manager of public finance at Rauscher Pierce Refsnes Inc. in Dallas.
Tom Masterson, chairman of Masterson Moreland Sauer Whisman Inc. in Houston, added, "If it's the best thing for school districts, we will support it. If it's not, we won't."
Regional firms have an undeniable self-interest in seeing the program fail since many of them are financial advisers to districts that might not need their services if pool financing was available.
But the Texas-based firms say they can make an economic argument against the program. The reason: Schools might achieve cheaper financing because of the guaranteed triple-A rating and the bank-qualified privilege that smaller issuers have.
State officials know the bond bank may have little if any savings to offer schools unless the pool-financed program can offer the same guarantees. The state therefore expects to soon name its financial adviser to examine what kind of program it can market.
"There's no point in having a program if it's not going to be attractive," said Ms. Belvin. "The financial adviser will tell us what kind of program the districts might use."
Last week, state officials interviewed the applicants. They were quizzed on their experience with pool programs -- never widely used in Texas -- and their views on the bond bank program.
Of the eight, only first Southwest Co. of Dallas is Texas-based. The others range from the well-known to the unknown and include Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. of Baltimore; Artemis Capital Group Inc. of New York; Clayton Brown & Associates Inc. of Chicago; Doley Securities Inc. of New Orleans; Evensen Dodge Inc. of Minneapolis; Lazard Freres & co. of New York; and John Nuveen & Co. of Chicago.
Many in the Texas industry were surprised to learn that First Southwest had applied for a program shunned by other regional firms. First Southwest, which is one of the top financial advisers nationally, changed ownership earlier this month.
However, Tom Luce, the new chairman of the firm, said the bid does not indicate a change in client focus by the firm--which has advised scores of school districts for decades.
"It doesn't represent a shift of any kind," said Mr. Luce. "Our experience [in Texas] makes us uniquely qualified for this program."
Still, other Texas firms have shunned the program, testifying against it before lawmakers approved it, pledging to compete against it, and last summer, ignoring a call for underwriting bids for the program.
"It's not good business to badmouth a program and then take a job of giving it good lip service," said a senior banker at a Texas firm that did not apply for the financial adviser's job. "We didn't want our business to have two faces on this issue."
Once a financial adviser is in place, state officials hope to begin marketing the bond bank to Texas schools by next spring, with an eye toward late 1992 for the program's initial issue of $30 million to $50 million.
"Providing there are no new glitches, it would be sometime in the spring when we are ready to go to school districts," said Sonja Suessenbach, director of the program for the Bond Review Board.
However, she and others admitted that there are several key issues to address if that schedule is to be kept.
Already, the Dallas law firm of Johnson & Gibbs has been hired to ask the Internal Revenue Service for a letter of ruling to determine whether local schools using the bond bank can still have their debt guaranteed by the state's giant Permanent School Fund. The state hopes for a fast response.
Texas will ask the IRS to extend its year-old ruling that exempts the Permanent School Fund, a multi-billion dollar trust created in 1854, from arbitrage rebate requirements.
Currently, the fund can be used to guarantee up to $18 billion in school debt and provide an automatic triple-A rating to nearly every school in Texas.
If the IRS does not allow the pool program to guarantee a triple-A rating, state officials concede there could be little incentive for many schools to use the bond bank.
"If those bonds won't carry as good a rating, then they won't have a better interest cost," said Paul Williams, executive assistant to Gov. Ann Richards, who also sits on the Bond Review Board. "That could affect the viability of the program."
Another factor in the bond bank's viability has been a proposal before Congress to allow small issuers -- those that expect to borrow less than $10 million a year -- to use their bank-qualified privilege if they choose to finance projects through the bond bank.
Ms. Belvin said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., has predicted that Congress could pass the measure late this year because several states have advocated the change, insisting it is revenue-neutral to the federal Treasury.
However, if the IRS and Congress do not agree, the bond bank program is far from doomed.
"If we cannot proceed with the current program, then we are going to be looking at the [Texas] Legislature for structural changes," Ms. Belvin said.
Mr. Williams, the governor's aide, agreed, noting that when Texas lawmakers meet again in January 1993, they could be asked to consider making the bond bank a part of the state's funding formula for local schools.
"We have always thought that the real secret to getting this program to work is to get some equity injected," he said. "We may need to have the Legislature put some money into it."