Big money, political fear and your right to vote

By: - July 16, 2007 2:06 pm

The debate over your right to vote on how your county should pay for schools and other infrastructure needs continues as the General Assembly session winds down. The North Carolina Realtors Association, with an assist from the N.C. Homebuilders Association, has only one priority, to keep you from having your say on a real estate transfer tax.

News stories this weekend brought some new and embarrassing excuses from Senate leaders, careful but instructive language from the Realtors and reality checks from officials in the counties that already have the transfer tax in place.

The Senate leadership agreed two weeks ago to a .4 percent transfer fee tied to a county referendum as part of an offer from House leaders to settle their differences over taxes and ending the county share of Medicaid. But the Senate Democratic Caucus rejected the plan after heavy pressure from the Realtors, whose lobbyists were seated outside the Democrats meeting room at the time.

The Realtors have denied reports that they have threatened to target Democratic Senators in swing districts who support a transfer tax of any kind, but Vice-President Tim Kent told the News and Observer only that the group was not planning to run ads against legislators during the session. That doesn’t mean they aren’t threatening to run them during the next election season.

The Realtors have already spent more than $500,000 on a misleading statewide ad campaign and the groups PAC gave more than $600,000 to candidates in the 2006 election cycle. The Homebuilders chipped in another $284,000.

Senator David Hoyle, a key Senate leader, says that it is not the lobbying nor the Realtors money that makes lawmakers oppose the transfer tax, it is fear. Hoyle told the N &O that Democrats are scared to vote for the tax because “Republicans will make commercials saying they voted for a House tax.”

Never mind that it’s the right thing to do. Too politically risky, especially for lawmakers unwilling or unable to tell the people the truth, that they supported people’s right to vote on a local revenue source.  Better to cower to commercials.

Hoyle is famous for arguing in private against virtually every progressive proposal before the Senate, warning his Democratic colleagues that many of them, including him, won’t be reelected if they support what he claims is controversial legislation.

He wins many of those arguments, but not all of them. Yet he was unopposed in 2006. His cries of wolf beg several questions. What is the point of being in the General Assembly if you can’t vote for anything you believe in?

Is Hoyle actually using fellow Senators’ political self-preservation instincts to scare them into supporting his own conservative agenda?

And is it just a coincidence that Hoyle received a combined $20,000 from the Realtors and Homebuilders PACS in 2006, second only to the $20,500 received by Senate Appropriations Chair Walter Dalton?

The money and the lobbying and the intimidation must be playing a significant role in the Senate’s opposition to a transfer tax, because the Realtors arguments simply don’t add up.

They claim any transfer tax will hurt home sales, penalize home buyers, and make counties with the tax less desirable places to live.  Yet seven counties in the state already have the right to impose the transfer tax, authority given to them in the 1980s by the General Assembly.

One of them is Pasquotank County. County Manager Randy Keaton tells the N &O that the transfer tax has not slowed growth in his area at all. The county is one of the 20 fastest growing in the state.

And maybe most troubling of all, the issue before the General Assembly is not the tax itself, but allowing people in counties to vote on it, to have a say in how to build schools in their own communities.

The Realtors and Homebuilders have no answer for that. Even their misguided rhetoric about the transfer tax can’t spin the fact that they want to deny people the right to vote.

Paul Wilms from the Homebuilders calls the transfer tax “a fundamental fairness issue.” Does he mean that denying the people the right to vote is fair?

The opposition to the tax has never been about fairness or affordable housing or protecting homebuyers.  It has always been about money, the dollars flowing into legislators’ campaigns and the half-million dollar distortion campaign, both designed to protect the real money, the realtors billions in profits, made from the state’s growth that they want everyone else to pay for.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066