Lobbyists' hard work got closing costs cut

Teamwork: Planning, persistence and legislators' help pass a bill to help homebuyers and Realtors.

April 16, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Lobbyists for Maryland's real estate industry claim a broad network of political friends in the General Assembly, but to pass an important bill this year they needed a dramatic breakthrough -- a legislative champion or an irresistible argument.

They got both.

At issue was a major effort by the industry to reduce Maryland's notoriously high closing costs by cutting to six months from one year the amount of property taxes buyers have to pay in advance when they buy a home.

The bill got its champion when the speaker of the House of Delegates, Casper R. Taylor Jr., agreed to support the measure.

And its irresistible argument came in the form of what the lobbyists called their "golden nugget" -- the chance to put hard cash in the pockets of homeowners. The Realtors' bill would give a large percentage of the state's 1.2 million homeowners an average $700 each in the form of a check from mortgage holders.

The industry's bill passed on the last day of the Assembly session, and its passage is a story of a highly sophisticated lobbying campaign drawing upon expertise, political connections and, in the end, luck to pass a bill that had failed several times.

"Our job," says Joel Rozner, chief lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Realtors, "was to spread the truth. We knew if we could explain what we were doing, no one could oppose our bill."

Rozner was the captain of a thoroughly modern lobbying team, one that mounted a full-service campaign for its client's bill. The politically potent group included Rozner, a former chief of staff for Gov. Parris N. Glendening; the former chief of the state's property tax agency; a former state senator; and the son of a former state delegate.

They are all members of the Assembly's unofficial "Third House," its corps of lobbyists. Highly paid and growing in number, these industry representatives work with legislators on crucial legislation every year. They draft bills, craft amendments, put together majorities in legislative committees and throw receptions for the members who will vote on their bills.

Lobbyists lament the image they have gained over the years: heartless gunslingers eager to satisfy the narrow demands of the wealthy, willing to steal big clients from their lobbying brothers and completely unconcerned with the welfare of the state.

But others believe legislating in a complicated world requires the assistance of the Third House. And while Taylor endorsed formation of a commission to study ethical standards for lobbyists, he and others say the Assembly could not function without them.

This year, as always, lobbyists were essential players in a wide variety of bills, including:

Deregulation of utilities in Maryland. Every major lobbyist sat with members of the Senate Finance and House Environmental Matters committees to work through this bill. Given most credit for the bill's passage were Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, and lobbyist Michael Powell, a lawyer with the Baltimore firm of Gordon, Feinblatt.

Passage of a 30-cent increase in the tax on each pack of cigarettes. Grass-roots lobbyists, wielding polls, pressured legislators to honor campaign pledges to increase taxes to price young people out of the cigarette market. They wanted a $1 increase but settled for 30 cents, a major victory, some thought, against Big Tobacco.

Fine-tuning of a bill that allows construction in Western Maryland of a thoroughbred racetrack. Lobbyists for the Maryland Jockey Club negotiated with the Glendening administration and legislative committees to make certain the track would not intrude on Jockey Club turf.

But perhaps none will have the broad impact on ordinary Marylanders as Rozner's bill to change from annual to semiannual the collection of property taxes. By one estimate, when the bill takes effect in June 2000, it will pump at least $500 million into the state's economy.

"This bill was a sleeper," said Taylor, who gleefully described the measure as "better than tax relief" because tens of thousands of constituents will get a check for half of the money that their mortgage holders are holding in property tax escrow accounts.

It is largely for this reason that in previous years the banking industry and county governments fought to kill similar measures.

The Realtors began plotting their legislative strategy early, meeting frequently last fall.

First, they needed sponsors. They chose Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's County Democrat, to sponsor the bill in the Senate, because she is an old ally of Rozner's in Prince George's politics and is close to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

In the House, the sponsors included two powerful Democratic committee chairs from Montgomery County -- Del. Sheila E. Hixson of Montgomery County on the Ways and Means Committee and Del. Peter Franchot on an important appropriations subcommittee.

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