By Robert Freedman, Senior Editor, REALTOR® Magazine
After fighting a transfer tax battle in their state about half a dozen years ago and several local efforts to impose a similar tax more recently, the leadership of the Louisiana REALTORS® Association earlier this year decided to act preemptively and put a stop to any future efforts to tax the transfer of real estate.
“We were able to beat those earlier efforts back, but we could see similar efforts cropping up all across the country,” says Norman Morris, the association’s government affairs director. “So, we decided to be proactive and put together a constitutional amendment that would prevent these efforts from coming up again.”
The association reached out for help through the My REALTOR® Party initiative, the political advocacy program the NAR Board of Directors created earlier this year to help state and local associations fight exactly the kind of battle Louisiana was facing.
“It turned out to be a great partnership,” says Morris. “We really couldn’t have done it without the resources we got through the initiative.”
To tap the financial, technical, and other help that’s made available, the association filled out an application in which it was asked to detail what was happening in the state and what it wanted to do about it. The application was submitted to NAR’s Issue Mobilization Committee for its input and within a short time the association was working with NAR on its campaign.
Morris says just filling out the application was integral to the shape of the campaign because it gave the association a chance to assess its needs and goals realistically and pinpoint the best approach to take.
“It was just a great, very thorough process, and the Issue Mobilization Committee was with us all the way,” he says. “It never wavered for a moment.”
Under the plan, the Louisiana association poured its resources into what it does best — working with its state legislature — while NAR came in later, mainly on the ballot initiative.
“In Louisiana, an initiative can’t go on the ballot until it first passes both chambers of the legislature by a two-thirds vote, so that’s where we concentrated our efforts,” he says. ”Every single lawmaker ended up voting yes. Not a single one voted against it.”
The legislative language was drafted with the help of national law firm Robinson & Cole, whose services NAR makes available at a discounted rate to state and local associations through the initiative.
With the legislative win, the amendment was put before the voters as a ballot question in the state’s November 19 general elections. Passage requires a simple majority—51 percent—but it ended up winning by a lopsided 81-percent vote. “This is where NAR’s help really made a difference,” says Louisiana REALTORS® Association chief Malcolm Young.
Behind the big win was a consumer campaign. The state association took the lead on TV and radio spots, online outreach, and other facets of a broad-based media strategy, while NAR and its consultants focused principally on grassroots activism, working with the association on polling and voter outreach, in large part through highly targeted direct mail.
“For the voter outreach we used a very, very great tool that the consultants brought in,” says Morris. “We could really drill down and target our messages to consumers who could be counted on to turn out for a vote. We just didn’t have the capacity on our own to do that.”
Polling showed that consumers liked what the REALTORS® were doing but there was also lots of room for misunderstanding on the issue. So the campaign included a sharp focus on just explaining what they would be voting on. “People were ready to vote ‘no’ on taxes, but on the ballot question they would be asked to vote “yes” on the constitutional amendment against future real estate transfer taxes, so we had to make sure they understood that.”
More than a great victory, the effort put in place an infrastructure that the association can tap again and again as issues arise in the future, says Young.
The association now has a permanent consumer-facing website, the Louisiana Homeowner Resource Center (www.lahomeowner.com), that provides information and resources, including issue advocacy tools. The traffic that’s now being generated on that site is a resource the association will be able to turn to in the future.
But the real benefit, Young believes, is the lasting impression consumers have of REALTORS® as a result of the campaign. “It’s given them confidence about what we can deliver,” he says. “Everybody we talked to really applauded the REALTORS® for becoming consumer champions.”
And the impact on the association’s members was just as important. “In my 17 years in the industry I’ve never seen our members so engaged,” says Morris. “They made calls, put up signs, gave talks—they could see how important this was to their customers and clients.”