The payday loan industry didn’t want to argue its case to Missouri voters. So it pulled out all the stops to keep an initiative to cap interest rates off of the November ballot. Sadly, it has succeeded.
Industry operatives falsely told churches they could lose their tax-exempt status if they educated parishioners about the exploitative nature of payday loans. Thugs harassed citizens as they gathered voters’ signatures.
Bankrolled with $2.3 million in secret money, supporters of annual interest rates that on average exceed 400 percent threw up one legal hurdle after another.
After losing their early skirmishes, payday loan supporters rejoiced when Secretary of State Robin Carnahan announced that the measure couldn’t appear on the November ballot because too many voters’ signatures were invalid. The industry sent its lawyers back to court to prevent its opponents from proving otherwise.
And so it ends. The grass-roots coalition known as Missourians for Responsible Lending has announced it is out of time to jump through the legal hoops required to prove legitimate registered voters signed its petitions.
Voters will not have their say on payday loan restrictions in November.
The collapse of the payday loan initiative took down another worthy initiative attempt. The coalition attempting to cap interest rates on payday loans had worked hand-in-hand with Give Missourians a Raise, the group seeking a dollar raise in Missouri’s minimum wage. That initiative won’t appear on the November ballot, either.
Opponents had good cause to fear the will of voters on both these matters.
Caps on the interest rates that can be charged by payday lenders have passed by solid margins in other states. Three-quarters of Missouri voters in 2006 said “yes” to a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage and there is little evidence that support has fallen much since then.
The demise of the two initiatives tells a disturbing story about the influence of money in Missouri politics.
Supporters of reasonable restrictions on payday lending have been rebuffed for years in the state legislature.
A study released a few months ago by Public Campaign, a watchdog group, showed why. Payday lenders and their lobbyists gave more than $1.6 million to top legislative leaders in Missouri over the past decade.
Missouri has now seen the initiative petition process corrupted by the same interests which dole out campaign cash to legislators.
Supporters of the payday loan industry hid their financial backing by donating to a non-profit organization called Missourians for Responsible Government. Founded by Kansas City communications consultant Patrick Tuoey, this entity acts as a conduit for people who want to donate anonymously to certain political causes. It passed money along to a campaign committee, Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity.
Records with the ethics commission show that Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity doled out hefty sums to, among others, consultant Jeff Roe’s firm, Axiom Strategies; to the politically connected law firm Graves, Bartle, Marcus & Garrett; and to a Las Vegas firm that specializes in petition drives, Silver Bullet Group. Chuck Hatfield, a well-connected lawyer in Jefferson City, also worked to keep the initiatives off the ballot.
So, for now, workers in Missouri will see no raise in the minimum wage and no protections against exorbitant interest rates charged by the state’s ubiquitous payday lenders.
For the lawyers, consultants and others, it’s payday as always — this time at the expense of democracy.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.