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Georgia senator’s bills show allegiance is to special interests

By Miranda Simon | 25 Jan 2010

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PALO ALTO – Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson’s committee assignments range from Commerce, Science and Transportation to Foreign Relations, but 22 percent of the bills he sponsors have more to do with the interests of his top campaign contributor – real estate.

Eight of the 36 bills Isakson sponsored were related to real estate, which used to be his field of business before he was sworn into the Senate in 2004.

Isakson receives $535,980 from the Real Estate industry, making him the fifth recipient of Real Estate funds in the Senate, according to the watchdog Maplight.org.

“He served on our board of directors, so we have a long standing relationship with the senator,” said Scott Reiter, political director of the National Association of Realtors. “He has understands our issues – He used to be a realtor, you know that?”

As part of the stimulus bill approved in February of 2009, Congress created an $8,000 tax credit for individual first-time homebuyers which was expanded at the end of 2009.

It allows home buyers until May of 2010 to have a home contract in place to qualify for the credit and raised the income caps from $75,000 to $125,000 for singles and from $150,000 to $225,000 for married couples.

The National Association of Realtors said this bill helped generate 350,000 home sales this year. But as inventories decreased, realtors started looking to stimulate homeowners to upgrade to a higher-priced home.

The new law addressed this need as well, making most current homeowners eligible for a tax credit of up to $6,500 for buying a second home after the primary home had been occupied for at least five years. The second home would be a replacement of the first.

But Sen. Isakson’s version of the amendment to extend tax credit for homebuyers was much more radical.

The amendment, which was unanimously approved by the senate in Feb. 2009, would raise the credit amount to $15,000 and remove the income restrictions entirely.

It would also strike out the requirement that the beneficiary of the tax break has to be a “first-time homebuyer of a principal residence,’’ replacing it with ‘‘an individual who purchases a principal residence.”

In a Feb. 4 press statement issued by his office, the amendment to the stimulus bill was described as “a direct tax credit to any homebuyer who purchases any home.”

Media contacts from both his Georgia and Washington office were not available to clarify why Isakson’s amendment had less defined restrictions than the tax credit extension finally passed by the administration.

A spokesperson from his Georgia Senate office said the the credit had not been raised to $15,000 in the final bill because “the democrats wouldn’t pass it,” but said she didn’t have the specific details on the amendment.

Isakson has been involved in real estate since 1967, when he opened Northside Realty, now one of Georgia’s largest real estate brokerage companies in Cobb County.

In a Jan. 14 meeting of the Cobb Association of Realtors, Senator Isakson explained the tax credit extension to real estate agents.

“It was important for us to have him there because he was one of the main authors of the homeowner tax credit,” said Carol Moson, an Atlanta agent for Re/Max realty, who was present at the meeting.

She said the tax credit extension, because it enabled homeowners to buy a second home in replacement of the first, was very beneficial to the real estate industry, “it addresses a stagnation in the real estate market,” she said.

Middle price homes were not attractive to buyers, she said, but thanks to the tax credit extension, people got an incentive to buy a second home at a middle price point.

She said that the real estate market had few new homes in their inventories now, so she was not concerned about Sen. Isakson’s statement at the Cobb Association of Realtors meeting that the homebuyer tax credit would not be extended again.

“We now need new construction,” she said.

When questioned about why Isakson receives such a strong backing from real estate agencies, she said, “He is a huge advocate of private ownership. It is important for homeowners to know that they have a representative in congress.”

Scott Reiter said realtors look to Isakson for advice because of his expertise in the industry and said that sponsoring bills within committees is not as important in the Senate as it is at a representative level.

Isakson has been called the media’s attention previously for swaying his votes or sponsorship of bills towards his campaign contributors. In 2007, he opposed a bill that would force Home Depot, a major contributor, to build shacks for immigrant employees.

The senator is up for reelection in Nov. 2010. It seems he will continue to receive backing from the real estate sector, and that is no small feat: the National Association of Realtors is number three in the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of top all time campaign donors.

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