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Key legislative issues remain front and center for Realtors

If you’re scoring at home, the Mississippi Association of Realtors (MAR) is batting .500.

Of the two major agenda items MAR had for the 2008 legislative session, one survived. The other? Maybe next year.

The winner was HB 1482, passed unanimously in both chambers and signed by Gov. Haley Barbour April 14. The new law will allow employers and employees a tax incentive for down payment assistance and/or closing cost assistance in the purchase of a home. Employers can establish a system by which to provide housing funds to eligible employees, who can use the money for rental security deposits, rental subsidies, down payments on homes, closing costs or any other fees related to renting or buying a home. The money can be in the form of a grant, forgivable loan or repayable loan.

Angela Cain, MAR CEO, identified this issue as one her association’s priorities before the opening gavel of the session. She said it builds company loyalty among employees and leads to better job retention.

“We’re very proud of the legislation we supported,” Cain said. “Mississippi Realtors believe in supporting employers who help their employees pursue the dream of homeownership.”

Another clause of the bill excludes from gross income under the income tax law amounts received by an individual from an employer or nonprofit housing organization that are benefits associated with an employer-assisted housing program.

Paying those premiums

Near the top of the MAR’s agenda for the 2009 session will most likely be the proposed health insurance exchange that cleared the Senate this year 52-0 but died in the House.

The exchange, pushed heavily by Barbour, would permit small business owners, employees and independent contractors to purchase health insurance with pre-tax dollars.

Barbour made the exchange a priority of his, bringing policy experts and business leaders together in January to sell the merits of a system he said would increase affordability and availability of health insurance for small business employees who often have difficulty obtaining it.

Shortly after the bill blazed through the Senate, Cain appeared at a press conference in the Governor’s Office in February, along with members of Mississippi’s business and medical community, to throw MAR’s support behind the measure. Despite overwhelming approval in the Senate and widespread support from the state’s business and medical communities, House leaders did not heed the call.

Rep. Walter Robinson, D-Bolton, Insurance Committee chair, said after the bill died that he had no problem increasing affordability and access to health insurance.

“But I’ve got to know who I’m helping,” Robinson said then. Sen. Buck Clarke, chair of the Senate Insurance Committee, said he would introduce the legislation next year.

This is an issue that hits close to home for Mississippi’s Realtors, most of whom are independent contractors who have to bear the full brunt of their health insurance costs.

“We feel confident that this will be a priority for Gov. Haley Barbour again next year, and MAR will do everything we can to be supportive,” Cain said.

On the road to Washington

That doesn’t mean MAR will completely put to rest its political activity until next January, though.

Cain and a delegation from her association are in Washington this week meeting with Mississippi’s senators and congressman. Among the topics to be discussed are housing stimulus legislation, improved insurance affordability and availability and small business healthcare issues. Cain says action is needed on legislation that will make it easier for homeowners to obtain property and casualty insurance and flood insurance. MAR will also pitch a similar program to Barbour’s proposed health insurance exchange. Pushing for the passage of housing tax credits is also on the association’s agenda.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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