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Diana Galavis
Jax Daily Record Monday, Jul. 18, 201612:00 PM EST

Realtors, builders wield political clout

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by: Kevin Hogencamp  Contributing Writer

The Yes for Jacksonville campaign to pay down the city’s pension debt with a half-cent sales tax extension got much-needed support from Northeast Florida’s real estate and building industries.

Legislative advocacy and supporting political campaigns are major missions of the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors and Northeast Florida Builders Association.

Both organizations have government affairs directors on staff and protocols in place, including a committee review process, before endorsements are made or other advocacy is undertaken.

Either organization’s support can be a dealmaker. NEFAR has nearly 7,000 members and NEFBA about 1,300.

“When you speak to us collectively, we listen to you very attentively in Tallahassee,” state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, told NEFAR members at a recent meeting. “You have a powerful voice.”

The associations’ political involvement ranges from knocking on doors for local candidates to lobbying state legislators on issues involving home ownership and property rights.

Nancy Garcia, who is NEFAR’s government affairs director, works with local real estate professionals, the Florida Realtors association and National Association of Realtors to develop and promote state and national legislation.

NEFAR advocates for real estate professionals and business partner members in Duval, Clay, Putnam and St. Johns counties.

Jessie Spradley, NEFBA’s government affairs director, spearheads political action work in Duval, Baker, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties.

He works with local building industry representatives and the Florida Home Builders Association to lobby state legislators and meet with regulators on issues that impact the construction trade and associated industries.

Asked to provide an example of a recent issue or political campaign that was critically important to their membership, officials with NEFAR and NEFBA cited the Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment 4 proposition in 2010.

The measure would have required voters to approve changes to counties’ comprehensive land-use plans. It was opposed by NEFAR and NEFBA and soundly defeated.

“Such a change would have devastated growth,” Spradley said, “resulting in the loss of jobs and driving the state economy further into recession.”

As it turns out, rallying the interest and support of NEFBA and NEFAR doesn’t usually require a sales pitch.

Rather, endorsements and contributions typically are sparked by the organizations’ membership.

For example, NEFAR endorsed the Mayor Lenny Curry-led pension measure without hearing from Yes for Jacksonville.

Duval County voters will decide Aug. 30 whether to extend the Better Jacksonville Plan half-cent sales tax beyond 2030 to tackle the city’s $2.7 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

Meanwhile, Curry was invited to address NEFBA about his plan before getting its endorsement and a $10,000 contribution for Yes for Jacksonville.

“Most commonly, our members will bring an issue to us, but we also get approached by outside groups or elected officials seeking assistance,” said NEFBA President Chet Skinner.

NEFAR: Protecting property rights

Watson Realty Corp.’s Diana Galavis wears a “Crystal R” lapel pin to proclaim she’s a major Realtor Political Action Committee donor.

She chairs NEFAR’s Legislative and RPAC Awareness and Events committees, helps screen political candidates and regularly meets with local leaders to discuss issues like blight, sign ordinances and vacant property registries.

Galavis considers advocating for homeowner rights and property investment to be essential part of her job as a Realtor.

Contributions to RPAC, a separate statewide organization that spends money to elect candidates who support Realtors’ interests, are independent of NEFAR membership dues.

“Legislative and political action matter to me because RPAC supports homeownership, private property rights and initiatives that affect the homebuyer and seller,” Galavis said.

As the region’s voice for real estate, NEFAR aims to protect private property rights and prevent government regulation that impedes the ability of consumers to achieve the dream of homeownership, said Nancy Garcia, the organization’s government affairs director.

NEFAR also advocates for policies that benefit small business and the economy and promote a good quality of life in Northeast Florida.

“We put a lot of people power into sign regulations (and) working to ensure that consumers who hire a Realtor are treated fairly and provided with the opportunity to market their property,” Garcia said.

The Jacksonville pension issue was reviewed by NEFAR’s Legislative Committee before being presented to the organization’s board of directors.

The real estate group has a Candidate Screening Task Force to interview people running for office on topics related to private property rights, real estate, small business, the economy and quality of life.

The task force’s recommendations are presented to the NEFAR board of directors for consideration. Along with their endorsement recommendations, the task force suggests contribution amounts.

“NEFAR has a very intense candidate screening process,” Galavis said.

The association also has a political outreach network that communicates get-out-the-vote reminders along with other calls-for-action and information in emails, on the organization’s website and on social media.

The amount of money NEFAR spends annually on legislative advocacy and campaigns varies depending on the election cycle.

“For example, 2015 was a very busy year due to term limits in Jacksonville and the large number of candidates, resulting in more runoffs,” Garcia said.

Also in 2015, NEFAR contributed $40,000 to the successful campaign for a half-cent sales surtax for public education funding in St. Johns County.

An ongoing local hot-button issue that NEFAR and NEFBA are following is Clay County’s sales tax extension referendum on the Aug. 30 ballot.

NEFAR supports sales tax increases when property taxes are the only other local government funding options, Garcia said.

What else is on the horizon locally for NEFAR? It depends.

“We’re never sure what will happen at the local level, especially when new people take office,” she said.

That’s why Garcia spends much of her time monitoring local government agendas and communicating with local politicians.

“It’s important for local officials to know that we are here,” she said.

NEFBA: Protecting homeowner issues

At NEFBA, the organization’s Government Affairs Committee has the first look when legislative issues surface.

Often, a panel of NEFBA members works with government staff and elected officials with the goal of finding a solution by modifying the county’s process or by legislation.

The committee often makes recommendations to the board of directors to support or oppose issues impacting builders, said Skinner, vice president of Skinner Bros. Realty.

NEFBA’s government affairs efforts are primarily focused on promoting homeowner opportunities, protecting jobs in the industry, limiting impact fees and other government regulation, protecting citizens from unlicensed contractors and subcontractors, and funding vocational education programs.

Candidate screenings are conducted by NEFBA’s Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns political action committees, which makes recommendations to the board of directors.

When NEFBA endorses candidates, it usually makes a $1,000 donation.

The larger contribution to the Yes for Jacksonville campaign was made from a specially designated builders fund.

While NEFBA expects to spend as much as much as $90,000 during the current election cycle, the organization’s political support isn’t limited to an endorsement and a check.

“We will assist candidates with lumber donations for signs (and) finding builders to hammer those signs,” Spradley said.

Also, NEFBA members with commercial property often allow the organization’s endorsed candidates to place large commercial signs on their property.

In races deemed to be critical, NEFBA and NEFAR volunteers also knock on doors, distribute flyers and help send out mailers.

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