The Growing Threat to Municipal Bonds

Proposals to cap or eliminate their tax deductibility would be a serious blow to efforts to improve our infrastructure.
May 11, 2017
By Randy Hultgren  |  Contributor
A Republican who represents Illinois' 14th Congressional District
By Dutch Ruppersberger  |  Contributor
A Democrat who represents Maryland's 2nd Congressional District

Buildings, roads and bridges: These are the Legos that, when snapped together, create the communities we all call home. President Donald Trump has promised to make improving our infrastructure a centerpiece of his administration, and we are eager to work with him to promote infrastructure investment, job growth and community prosperity. This includes defending a key financing tool that for the past several years has faced growing uncertainty.

For more than a century, tax-exempt municipal bonds have been the single most important means for financing new roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. These are a lifeline without which state and local municipalities would find it far more expensive to finance capital improvements and other infrastructure that benefit everyone.

In Maryland's Baltimore County, for example, municipal bonds have financed capital projects ranging from the restoration of a library after a fire to the expansion of several public parks. In Illinois' Will County, the future of a new courthouse and law-enforcement complex hinges on the bonds' tax-exempt status. Nationwide, the National League of Cities estimates that municipal bonds have financed more than four million miles of roads, 500,000 bridges, 16,000 airports and 900,000 miles of water pipes. In all, municipal bonds support more than 1.5 million civic projects.

But in recent years this bipartisan tool has been under attack, with proposals being floated in Washington to cap the bonds' tax deductibility or eliminate it entirely. Then-President Barack Obama's fiscal 2017 budget proposal would have capped the tax deduction at 28 percent. We believe this would devastate municipalities that rely on the tax exemption, especially amid uncertain state budgeting. Reducing the tax benefits of these bonds would be bad for jobs and for taxpayers; higher project costs would shift to taxpayers through increased property taxes, fees and other means.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that state and local governments have about $3.6 trillion in unmet infrastructure needs through the year 2020. In Illinois, a cap like the one proposed by Obama would have cost the state $6.2 billion if it had been implemented in 2012; for Maryland, the figure would have been $2 billion. For states facing steep budget deficits and rising costs, we can't afford to let precious funding go to waste.

The city of St. Charles, Ill., is a prime example. St. Charles' annual interest payment for its debt currently exceeds $3 million, but it could be far more without the tax exemption for municipal bonds, which has saved the city 25 percent, including $619,000 in interest costs when it built the Red Gate Bridge over the Fox River in 2011. This is real money that makes a real difference to local taxpayers -- money that could be used to maintain basic services and programs otherwise on the verge of shuttering.

With tax reform and infrastructure legislation now on the table in Washington, the debate over how to best restore our country's aging infrastructure is in full swing. State and local governments' ability to issue tax-exempt debt is now more important than ever. That is why we have sent a letter to the House leadership asking them to reject any proposal to cap or eliminate the deduction on tax-exempt municipal bonds. More than 150 of our colleagues from both sides of the aisle have joined us. We urge President Trump to similarly reject any such proposal.

We have also launched the bipartisan Municipal Finance Caucus to continue promoting the importance of this tax exemption with our colleagues in Congress. The caucus is a valuable platform that ensures any discussion of comprehensive tax reform includes the needs of municipalities throughout this nation. Answering the call for reliable, proven infrastructure financing means we must protect this vital tool for job growth and economic development in our communities.