AUSTIN – Federal tax reform efforts will accelerate in just a few weeks, and municipal market participants need to be pushing hard to protect the muni interest exemption right now, lawyers told attendees at a conference here Thursday.
Speaking at The Bond Buyer's Texas Public Finance Conference luncheon, Bracewell attorneys Curtis Beaulieu and Charles Almond warned that the exemption could be in danger very soon despite President Donald Trump's apparent support for leaving that part of the tax code unchanged. Republicans have been pushing to lower corporate and individual income tax rates, a goal that puts the muni exemption in danger of being limited or eliminated.
The momentum will pick up about six weeks from now, Beaulieu said, when House Ways and Means Committee chair Kevin Brady, R-Texas, releases the first draft of tax reform legislation. This draft, called the "chairman's mark," is crucial for the future of the muni exemption, said Almond. If the mark comes out and does not include a tax exemption for municipal bond interest, the lawyer warned, that means someone on the committee will then have to work to get it in.
"You really want things taken care of in the chairman's mark," Almond said, urging conference attendees to begin lobbying their representatives now if they hadn't already, warning them against waiting weeks to do so. Almond said that the "House blueprint" for tax reform that has already been publicly circulated could already be interpreted as limiting the tax exemption, and proposed eliminating "special-interest" deductions and credits.
A September estimate released by the Treasury pegs federal "tax expenditures" for tax-exempt bonds issued by state and local governments at about $565 billion over the 10-year period from 2017-2026. While that ranks only 15th on Treasury's list of tax expenditures, Almond said it still provides lawmakers with a potentially appealing way of helping to lower tax rates without adding to the deficit.
"To get those rates down, they're going to go searching for other places to raise revenues," said Almond.
Beaulieu said that even if the tax exemption is on the table, legislation would still be very unlikely to include a retroactive change to the status of outstanding tax-exempt bonds.
"Republicans typically do not support retroactive tax increases," Beaulieu said. "So there's probably no chance."
Almond downplayed the comfort that market participants can take in then President-Elect Trump's comments to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in December, during which Trump spoke about his proposed $1 trillion ten-year infrastructure plan and said that he plans to maintain the tax-exempt standing of municipal bonds.
"I don't think you can rely on anything until it's Tweeted," joked Almond.
Beaulieu said that Republicans can pass tax reform legislation on a partisan basis in the House, where they GOP maintains a sizeable majority. But when the discussion moves over to the Senate, he said, Republicans will likely need to abandon their partisan approach and get some Democrats on board. Republicans control 52 Senate seats, but the upper chamber's rules essentially require 60 votes to pass a bill because of the ability of Senators to filibuster and more easily amend bills they dislike.
"Everything slows down in the Senate," said Beaulieu.
The Bracewell lawyers' estimated timeline includes consideration of tax reform legislation by the full House by August. The full Senate could consider it by the end of 2017, and a conference report could produce a joint product by spring 2018.