News Column

Committee puts payday loan bill on hold; Loan industry funds campaigns of some committee members

February 12, 2014

By Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.

Feb. 12--MONTGOMERY -- A pair of bills to regulate payday and title lenders in Alabama got put on hold in a committee in the Alabama House of Representatives Wednesday -- despite the fact that one of the bills was sponsored by a majority of House members.

"This is not something that's going to run away from us in a week," said Rep. Thad McClammy, D-Montgomery, a member of the House Financial Services Committee.

The committee held public hearings Wednesday on a pair of bills that would limit interest on payday and title loans to an annual rate of 36 percent, and would limit the number of loans someone could take from short-term lenders in one year.

Payday loans are short-term loans in which borrowers pay a fee -- typically about $17 for every $100 borrowed -- for a loan that comes due in a week or two. Title loans are similar, but use the title to the borrower's car as collateral. Figured at an annual rate, interest on those loans is often above 400 percent.

Critics of the industry say payday and title lenders take advantage of poor people who are short on cash, saddling them with interest payments that often far exceed the amount borrowed.

"You're giving them a life preserver that sinks them to the bottom in their time of need," said Stephen Stetson, a policy analyst for Alabama Arise, a group that advocates for people who are living in poverty.

Supporters of the payday and title loan bills pulled together a bipartisan coalition in favor of the bills this year, drawing on groups as diverse as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Federation of Republican Women. Fifty-three of the 105 members of the House have signed on as co-sponsors of the title loan bill, sponsored by Rep. Rod Scott, D-Birmingham.

At Wednesday's hearing, speakers against the bills were few. Jay McDuffie, of Birmingham-based Check Depot, said his industry provides financial services to people rejected by the rest of the financial industry.

"We're here to say there are other financial services that cost more than we charge," he said. Overdraft fees and late fees on bills, he said, are more expensive than payday loans.

"People use us to avoid those fees," he said.

Critics said there's no justification for the interest rates the check cashing and title loan services charge.

"If you don't think triple digits are usury and immoral, I don't know what we would define usury and immoral as," said Shay Farley, legal director for the group Alabama Appleseed.

Committee member McClammy urged the committee to take its time with the bill, saying the House should look into the deeper causes of why people fall into debt. He said he'd heard of a number of people who'd faced financial hardship because of high fees on city parking tickets and other issues.

"We have to look at this from a holistic standpoint," he said.

By voice vote, committee members chose to send the bill regulating payday loans to subcommittee -- a move that would delay its passage at least until the committee's next meeting. With time running out for a vote on the title loan bill, sponsor Scott consented to have it "carried over" to a future meeting.

Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, said he would have voted "no" or abstained if the bill had come to a vote.

"As much confusion as the bill caused here in committee, you can just imagine what it would be like when it gets to the full House," he said.

Several members of the committee have accepted campaign contributions from payday or title lenders, according to records in the secretary of state's office.

McClammy's campaign has received $1,000 from TitleMax and $1,000 from title loan company Select Management Resources in the 2014 election cycle. Committee Chair Lesley Vance, R-Phenix City, took in $1,500 in campaign funds from TitleMax, $400 from Check Into Cash, $100 from Check Smart, $500 from Cash America and $1000 from Select Management. Committee members Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham, and Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills, also had donations from some of those sources.

Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, had a $1,000 contribution from Select Management. And like McClammy and Vance, he had a $1,000 contribution from a group called Alabama Lenders PAC.

Hurst said the PAC wasn't connected to payday lenders. Asked who did fund Alabama Lenders PAC, he said he didn't know.

"These PACs that they have, sometimes you don't have any idea where the money comes from," he said.

The Star didn't find any recent campaign finance filings for Alabama Lenders PAC in the state's campaign finance records, but records from 2011 and earlier show it took money from businesses such as Money Mart and E-Z Finance.

Hurst said he didn't know that Select Management was a title loan company. He said he'd returned a donation from another title loan company earlier.

Still, Hurst said his skepticism of the lending bills was based primarily on his belief that people need a place to borrow small amounts of money in an emergency -- and not on any donations to his campaign.

"When I go to church, I put money in the collection plate, but I don't tell the preacher how to preach," he said.

Attempts to reach Steve Dean, Hurst's opponent in the Republican primary, were not immediately successful Wednesday. Stephanie Engle, who is running against Hurst as a Democrat, said she supported limits to payday loans.

"I'm absolutely for limiting payday loans because of the destruction they cause in the community, she said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.


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Source: Anniston Star (AL)

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