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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Feb. 23, 201712:00 PM EST

Realtors and builders have busy agendas for legislative session

by: Clifford Davis

Though the Florida Legislature’s session doesn’t begin until March 7, Realtors and homebuilder associations are busy laying the foundation for the agendas they’ll promote.

The chief concerns in the state’s real estate and construction industries focus on taxes, workforce and regulations.

“Workers’ Comp. Workers’ Comp. Workers’ Comp,” said Douglas Buck, the director of governmental affairs for the Florida Home Builders Association. “Any insurance rate increases are a real, direct cost to everyone.”

Since 2003, the construction industry has seen its workers’ compensation rates trend downward after the Legislature passed a bill to base lawyer fees in cases on the amount of the defendant’s award.

But that changed after an April ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that awarded attorneys an hourly rate for their work.

The state assigns individual workers’ compensation rates to more than 600 professions. Construction workers consistently fall among the most expensive for employers to cover, just under steelworkers and some agricultural jobs.

Now, the FHBA is looking to change the law.

Workforce development has been a major push for builders in the state the past few years and will be a significant part of their legislative agenda.

“Expanding the workforce is an issue that’s been around a while, but this year it’s higher up on the list because we’re seeing a recent surge in demand,” said Felix Beukenkamp, chair of the National Home Builders Association’s governmental affairs committee and manager of BBG Design-Build LLC.

He and others formed a workforce task force, including lawmakers, to tackle the task of rebuilding the residential construction workforce after what he said was an exodus of qualified labor following the housing market collapse in 2008.

Builders associations also are seeking a reform of how the state adopts its building code, known as the International Building Code.

Every three years, the code must go through a laborious process to be amended.

“We’ve got a dilemma here in Florida because of our large coastline and geography, we need special codes,” Beukenkamp said. “A lot of that is driven by codes that reflect our exposure to natural disasters, winds, water and rain.”

The builders association also is eyeing changes to homeowners’ association regulations, as well as a process known as “assignment of benefits.”

That is where a homeowner can designate a third-party contractor — such as a water mitigation company after flooding — be paid directly by the insurance company.

The process is susceptible to fraud, Beukenkamp said.

As for Realtors, their agenda has three main points, according to Florida Realtors President Maria Wells, of Lifestyle Realty Group.

The group’s first priority is the property tax cap on second homes.

“The Legislature passed a bill in 2007 that created a 10 percent cap on increases to assessed values of non-homestead properties,” she said. “We want to make that permanent.”

The second priority is what is known as the commercial lease tax or, as Wells calls it, “the business rent tax.”

In this effort, Realtors have been joined by a large coalition of chambers of commerce and port groups. The tax charges a 6 percent fee on any business leasing commercial property. Florida is the only state in the country with such a tax. It’s been in effect since 1969.

The elimination of the tax, Wells said, would allow small businesses to flourish and create more jobs by decreasing overhead.

Finally, Florida Realtors is targeting estoppel certificates. The certificates serve as a certified promise the property has no outstanding fees against it, such as liens or association fees.

“It’s something that is now required to be at the closing table to make sure the buyer isn’t inheriting any unknown fees — which is fair,” Wells said. “The problem is, Florida law says that you can charge a ‘reasonable fee’ to prepare it.

“However, we are now seeing that some associations are charging the seller up to $1,000 for this piece of paper,” Wells said.

The beginning of the legislative session, like baseball season, abounds with hope for those seeking to have their agendas at least make the playoffs.

And for those involved in industries that have been as volatile throughout the last decade as the state’s real estate and residential construction markets have been, hope truly springs eternal.

“I wouldn’t say we’re more optimistic or less this year,” Beukenkamp said. “I think we have to be perpetually optimistic because we’re builders and it’s a tough business.”

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