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Success Stories

Hawai’i REALTORS® Improve Public Education without Property Tax Surcharges

December 2018

The REALTORS® of Hawai’i want high quality public education throughout their island state. But they oppose the notion of achieving it by amending the state constitution to allow for the creation of a state property tax surcharge on investment properties, as proposed by a ballot initiative in the November 2018 election. Polling services and an Issues Mobilization Grant helped them mount a major effort to counter the proposed measure, leading a coalition of more than 150 organizations.

Ken Hiraki, Government Affairs Director of the 9,700-member state association, explains that although initial polling by the REALTOR® Party showed the troubling ballot proposal was favored among the state’s voters, the National Association of REALTORS® believed it was worth attempting to reverse those numbers with a major public awareness campaign. The grant application was very user-friendly, says Hiraki, noting that NAR’s Issues Mobilization team provided invaluable encouragement, insight, and recommendations throughout the process. “NAR’s support and belief in our cause, even when the initial polling showed us as behind, was what secured the confidence of our coalition partners. We began with four organizations and grew it to well over a hundred. It was a great model of success.”

The campaign featured a two-pronged approach: first, an aggressive education, training, and get-out-the-vote effort among the REALTORS®, who spread the word effectively through their extensive local networks; and second, a coalition-led public media campaign that included television, radio, and newspaper ads, and at least 50 local grassroots events. One of the television spots featured four former state governors discussing the potential detriment to the state and its property and small-business owners. “Once the spots hit, voters finally realized that proponents of the amendment had misled them on the facts,” says Hiraki, adding, “The media also began to report the true facts and the unintended consequences that would result if the measure passed.”

Shortly before the election, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued an order invalidating the ballot question on the grounds that the language was vague and ambiguous. This legal injunction was triggered by a lawsuit brought by the office of Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell, who noted that he might have not challenged the proposed amendment but for the coalition, which he felt was a credible organization raising legitimate concerns. “Although we were pleased by the ruling, we also knew that we would have won at the ballot box thanks to the support and encouragement of NAR!” states Hiraki. This was proven by the early mail-in ballots printed prior to the court decision and returned by more than 65% of Hawaii voters: the mail-in results showed a 74% opposition to the contested ballot measure.

In addition to the legal failure of the proposed amendment allowing for property tax surcharges, one especially positive outcome for the REALTORS® was that the campaign unified the organization, and strengthened the bonds between REALTORS® on the islands, says Chief Executive Officer Nancy Donahue-Jones. She also notes, “We gained respect from the community as a viable political force, and more than 100 coalition partner-organizations learned that we’re able to deliver.”

Having protected property owners from this particular tax threat, the REALTORS® are actively seeking creative solutions to the problem of inadequate public education: they are looking to partner with the state Department of Education on building rental housing on unused school properties, three of which have already been identified on Oahu. They are also exploring the possibility of adapting existing affordable housing law to give public school teachers first dibs when units become available in new developments.

To learn more about how Hawai’i REALTORS® are working to protect property rights and support public education, contact Ken Hiraki, Government Affairs Director of the Hawai’i Association of REALTORS®, at 808-733-7060.

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