By Robert Freedman, Senior Editor, REALTOR® Magazine
After Maine lawmakers in 2009 approved tax increases on goods and services and voted to convert the state mortgage interest deduction and other itemized deductions into a tax credit, the Maine Association of REALTORS® helped push through a ballot measure that repealed the tax increases and preserved the state MID.
“That tax increase was the last straw” for Maine households, says Chris Philbrook, government affairs and communications director for the Maine Association of REALTORS® (MAR). Voters, taking MAR’s side, approved a ballot referendum in 2010 to repeal the tax changes on a 60-40 basis.
Maine 2010 ballot issue
But the battle was expensive, with MAR using close to $100,000 of its political advocacy funds to test and then mount a campaign that included media ads and a website, among many other components to the all-out effort. NAR helped with a $100,000 infusion of money from its issue mobilization funds.
NAR also helped bring MAR together with a media company to test and craft the ads that Philbrook says were critical to framing the debate for voters. “We did polling, and with a subset of people, we watched what messages resonated, and we based our ads on those,” he says.
The success of MAR in fighting back against a state initiative that could harm home owners and the real estate profession is the kind of effort NAR’s issue mobilization funds are intended for, and associations around the country have tapped those resources to tally up a string of high-impact victories over the years.
Like the big win of the Illinois Association of REALTORS®, back in 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court threw private-property rights law into confusion with its ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn. to allow the city to take people’s houses so a developer could profit by building a mixed-use project that included condos, hotels, and retail space.
The Kelo case spurred REALTORS® in Illinois to take preemptive steps to prevent that kind of breach of private property rights in their state, so they combined their issue advocacy funds with $10,000 from NAR to get a law passed tightening the criteria by which localities can exercise their eminent domain powers. Under the change, localities have to show a tight correlation between a project and the public good so that a Kelo-type project that mainly focused on upping the tax base through an economic development project couldn’t sneak through.
One of the remaining houses in the impacted New London, Conn., neighborhood in 2006. Photo: Creative Commons
“It was perfect issue for the REALTORS®,” says Greg St. Aubin, the Illinois association’s government affairs director. “Our organization tends to be really good at playing that watchdog role, and it was a great opportunity for us to be protector of private property rights.”
In addition to making money available, NAR has a contract with the land-use legal specialists at the law firm Robinson and Cole to help state and local associations tailor private property rights and other land-use legislation to their state or local situation.
REALTORS® charted a similarly big win in Indiana last year, when the Indiana Association of REALTORS® (IAR) tapped $50,000 in NAR issue mobilization funds to get a 1 percent cap on property taxes embedded in the state constitution. Lawmakers a few years earlier had passed legislation to bring down the cap on property taxes from 2 percent to 1.5 percent and then to 1 percent, where it is now. To help ensure the cap can’t be tinkered with easily, IAR helped lead a coalition to get the 1 percent cap placed on the 2010 ballot as a constitutional amendment. More than 70 percent voted in favor of the constitutional amendment. As a result, raising the property tax rate will require two successively elected general assemblies to pass a resolution to amend the constitution. So, it will take a minimum three-year process to make a change.
Past IAR President Paul Wyman at podium with Indiana governor Mitch Daniels behind him. IAR photo
But the win wasn’t cheap. “The coalition as a whole spent about $350,000 to get it passed,” says Karl Berron, CEO of IAR. “We spent about $100,000 and we got $50,000 from NAR.”
The issue advocacy successes in Maine, Illinois, and Indiana are a handful among a number of efforts to protect interests of home owners and real estate by state and local associations that tapped assistance from NAR issue mobilization funds.
- $100,000 to the Santa Fe, N.M., Association of REALTORS® to defeat a proposed transfer tax
- $75,000 to the Austin, Texas, Association of REALTORS® to defeat mandated energy retrofits at the point of home sales
- $30,000 to the Richmond, Va., Association of REALTORS® on an affordable housing matter
- $15,000 to the Aransas Association of REALTORS® to address road impact fees
- $10,000 to the Fargo-Moorhead, N.D., Association of REALTORS® to address a sales tax for flood protection matter
Of course, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year, which allows corporations to pump money without limit into local, state, and national issue campaigns, the difficulty and cost of winning industry-critical issue campaigns is set to go way up, and indeed, reports make clear that unprecedented amounts of corporate money flooded into last year’s national elections, setting a template for what’s to come.
Under Citizens United, corporate political speech is given the same protection as individual political speech, effectively lifting limits on the amount of so-called soft dollars that can be pumped into issue advocacy. That will increase the importance of money, technical assistance, and other resources that NAR provides to local and state associations for issue advocacy efforts and why NAR’s Executive Committee two weeks ago voted to recommend to the NAR Board of Directors approval of the association’s REALTOR® Party Political Survival Initiative. Under that initiative, REALTORS® would pump $195 million over five years into political advocacy efforts like the ones in Maine, Illinois, and Indiana. About two-thirds of the resources—money, technical help, and resources—would go to local and state associations. The funds would come from a $40 dedicated dues increase.
As Ryan Swinney, president of the Helena, Mont., Association of REALTORS® has said, based on the help his association received to fight a transfer tax proposal last year, “The investment is nothing compared to what this initiative can do for us.”
More on the REALTOR® Party Political Survival Initiative.