Municipal Bonds Add Fuel to the Fire

USA TODAY, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Municipal Bonds Add Fuel to the Fire


It is well-known that the Federal government is amassing large amounts of debt, but state and local governments are piling it up as well. State and local debt soared from 1.19 trillion dollars in 2000 to 1.85 trillion dollars in 2005. About 39% of the total is state, while 61% is local, points out Chris Edwards, director of Tax Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.

Most state and local debt takes the form of long-term bonds. Issues of municipal bonds raised an average $230,000,000,000 annually in new funds between 2001-05, up from the $152,000,000,000 average between 1996-2000.

There are two main types of municipal bonds: general obligation (GO) and revenue. GO bonds are backed by general taxation and often are subject to constitutional limits. Issues of GO bonds usually need to be approved by voters. Revenue bonds are backed by particular sources of revenue and usually are subject to fewer restrictions. GO bonds are about 39% of long-term municipal debt and revenue bonds are 61%.

Revenue bonds are financed by receipts future taxes, fees, lease payments, Federal grants, lottery earnings, and tobacco settlement payments. The idea is to securitize expected streams of cash to allow state and local officials to spend now rather than later. A growing trend is to securitize future Federal aid for highways, housing, and other items in "grant anticipation" debt. Federal aid long has spurred overspending by the states, but such debt innovation is exacerbating the situation.

Recent Federal legislation has included new ways for states to go further into debt, such as the creation of three types of municipal "tax credit bonds" Interest payments on municipal bonds generally are exempt from Federal income tax. State and local debt thus is tax-favored over private debt, creating an economic distortion, Edwards maintains. Debt issued to finance government schools, airports, parking lots, and other facilities is favored over debt to finance similar private facilities. As a result, tax law encourages monopoly government ownership and is biased against private-sector competition and innovation.

Another problem with debt is that mixing big government with big finance often results in corruption, Edwards emphasizes. …

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