BABs, TIGER in Democratic Jobs Agenda

Senate Democrats plan to unveil a “jobs agenda” as early as this morning that would extend surface transportation programs for a year, expand the Build America Bonds program, and augment the popular TIGER discretionary transportation grant program.

“First of all, we do not have a jobs bill,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters this week. “We have a jobs agenda we’re working on. The first phase of that is going to be something we’ve been told by [the Congressional Budget Office] that will create jobs immediately, the year 2010.”

The initial agenda will include a one-year extension of the federal highway law — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU — that expired Sept. 30 and has since been in stopgap-funding mode. The current stopgap ends Feb. 28.

According to Reid, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the provision would save “about a million jobs.”

The measure or measures will also extend or expand the Build America Bonds program, he said.

“For sure, those ... things we’re going to move on,” Reid said.

Reid added that the jobs agenda also may include more funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery discretionary grant program. The TIGER program was authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to receive $1.5 billion, but attracted $56.5 billion of applications from all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories.

“And at this stage, we’re seeing if we can do something on a bipartisan basis that may encompass more than that, like tax extenders,” Reid said.

His office said Reid hoped to introduce the package by the end of this week.

The proposals would satisfy a couple of high-priority items in the muni market — more BABs and more TIGER grants.

President Obama’s budget proposal released Monday recommended making BABs permanent, but starting next January the federal subsidy that issuers are eligible to receive from the Treasury to defray interest costs on the bonds would shrink to 28% from 35%. Obama proposed also to expand BABs’ eligibility to include refundings and working capital and to allow nonprofit hospitals and universities to issue the debt.

However, sources said yesterday that it is unclear how wide-reaching the BAB provisions would be, and whether the TIGER grant expansion would be introduced now or later.

An outline of the package included a BABs extension, one market participant said. The outline did not specify if other tax-credit bonds would be transitioned into BABs-style bonds, where issuers can choose to receive direct payments in lieu of tax credits.

Another market participant said the extension of the program, and possible expansion to include such things as qualified zone academy bonds, qualified school construction bonds, and clean renewable energy bonds, is more likely to be in future legislation instead of in the forthcoming job-creation bill.

Other sources said lawmakers may take a multi-step approach for transportation, as well, instead of simultaneously taking care of a looming shortfall in the highway trust fund and extending SAFETEA-LU another year.

Andrew Ackerman contributed to this story.

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