DALLAS -- The Texas attorney general's office may stop approving new local school bond issues Sept. 1 because of uncertainty over the fate of the state's new school finance law.
Assistant Attorney General Jim Thomassen said yesterday that future issues may be stalled until Travis County District Judge F. Scott McCown, who is overseeing the constitutional challenge to the so-called Robin Hood plan, issues a ruling.
"We're considering it," said Mr. Thomassen, whose division of the attorney general's office must approve all school bonds. "The uncertainty is over what to do in the absence of any ruling at all."
But investment bankers and bond lawyers say they have anticipated a Sept. 1 deadline and expect record bond volume to slip after this month. Texas schools have already sold 146 issues totaling $1.53 billion this year -- twice the total for 1990.
"We're already been advising our clients of the Sept. 1 deadline," said Neil Thomas, a bond lawyer at Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston.
Nonetheless, Mr. Thomassen said his office could issue a written advisory to Texas bond counsel late this week with a final decision on deadlines for submitting issues for approval.
Unless the court offers a clear directive, then bond counsel will likely be notified that they have until Aug. 16 to submit issues for approval for a Sept. 1 closing. The attorney general currently has 13 issues totaling $200 million awaiting final review.
Chuck Kobdish, a bond lawyer at McCall, Parkhurst & Horton in Dallas, questioned whether the cutoff deadline would affect only new money issues -- which account for 72% or $1.1 billion of all school bonds this year.
"We don't know if this [cutoff] will allow a school district to do a refunding yet," he said.
Mr. Thomassen said his office is still studying the issue. However, he noted that while notes issued by schools do not require attorney general approval, he questioned whether short-term debt could be sold in the absence of a court ruling.
Even if the court rules, however, a cutoff could still go into effect.
"Clearly, if Judge McCown says [the new law] is unconstitutional, we won't be able to go ahead after Sept. 1," barring a stay of the decision, he said. "Either way, the decision is going to be appealed."
Property-rich districts have challenged the new school finance law -- known as Senate Bill 351 -- because it would force an increase in their historically low tax rates while shifting hundreds of millions of dollars to poor districts, who first challenged the school finance system seven years ago.
A spokesman for the judge yesterday declined to say when a ruling on the constitutionality of the new law might be issued.
However, some market participants said the judge may be waiting for Texas lawmakers to fund the school reforms before issuing ruling. The Legislature is scheduled to end a 30-day special budget-writing session by next Thursday.
Because that uncertainty has been anticipated for months, some investment bankers said their clients have timed their issues to close by late August, while others have made plans for fixed-rate offerings early next year.
"I think the real rush is over with this year," said an investment banker in San Antonio. "We've seen September as the real deadline all along and schools have already made their plans."
Mel Schonhorst, first vice president at Rauscher Pierce Refsnes Inc. in Dallas, agreed, saying that only one of his clients might be affected.
He said the Lubbock Independent School District had planned to complete the sale of $15 million in unlimited tax bonds on Sept. 11, but would move up those plans for an Aug. 29 closing.
"Most of the districts have made conscious decisions to wait to close until 1992," he said. "I think we'll see a peak [in issuance] last week and this week."
Figures compiled by Securities Data Co./Bond Buyer show that in July alone, Texas schools sold $239.4 million in debt -- about 15% of the total so far this year.
The biggest push came in February when districts sold 49 issues totaling $573.6 million, which is 37.4% of the market this year, the data shows.
That volume came as the attorney general's office announced it would stop approving new school bonds that were not closed by April 1. However, Mr. Thomassen said that cutoff never took effect.
Despite the possibility of a cutoff, many investment bankers are predicting volume could top $1.8 billion this year.
"One reason the volume is so big is because of the need that has built up for years," said a Houston financial adviser. "By nature, issuers put off [selling debt], but the change in the law made them realize they couldn't put it off forever."