By Patricia Healy
Is there a threat to the municipal bond interest deduction?
The new administration’s focus on tax reform, especially as many of us pay our federal and state taxes this week, draws our attention to the taxation of interest on municipal bonds. I recently heard a presentation by Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia South Carolina and executive director of the board of Municipal Bonds for America (MBFA), a group that comprises state and local government officials, municipal industry groups such as the American Public Power Association, and Bond Dealers of America.
The mission of the MBFA is to educate members of Congress about the benefits of municipal bonds. The organization, along with the National Association of Counties (NACo) and many others, have sent letters to Congress extolling the virtues of municipal bonds and urging Congress not to tax municipal bond interest or eliminate the federal deduction for state and local taxes. Individuals and organizations can learn more about the MBFA and even sign the letter to Congress at municipalbondsforamerica.org. To view the NACo letter in PDF format, click here.
The letters specifically remind current members that Congress officially recognized the importance of the federal/state partnership on October 3, 1913, when the tax system was codified. The exemption of interest on municipal bonds was one of 12 personal deductions and exclusions considered essential to the functioning of the nation.
The principle of reciprocal immunity, by which the federal government does not tax states and local governments and vice versa, was considered imperative. A description of the original tax code is on the MBFA website, and the NACo site has a copy of the 1862 Emergency Federal Income Tax (a tax that incidentally was later determined to be unconstitutional), which included deductions for state and local taxes.
Tax-exempt municipal bonds play an important role in our building of infrastructure – we see the results every day in roads and bridges, airports, mass transit systems and affordable housing, hospitals and universities. Tax exemption results in lower interest expense for issuers, thus reducing property or other taxes and fees for residents. Private activity bonds (not to be confused with the internationally utilized public–private partnership model) are a type of municipal bond that helps fund infrastructure.
Some of the revenue for bond repayment derives from the activities of private entities (such as an airport collecting gate fees from airlines) or accrues when a private developer builds a project, for example a city hall, and leases it back to the municipality. Private activity bonds (PABs) are currently subject to the alternative minimum tax (NYSE:AMT).
If the AMT were abolished, it would result in lower costs and wider market access for PAB-funded projects as well. Federal taxation of interest on municipal bonds would drive up funding costs and make projects more expensive….