WHAT OTHERS SAY: No gouging these sharks

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

The payday loan industry — and companies that make other such high-interest, short-term loans — takes advantage of the poor and foolish. But recently, this group has robbed the voters of Missouri of our political rights.

This month, Missourians for Responsible Lending — the group that led a petition drive to limit the loans to 36 percent interest, instead of the more than 400 percent typically charged — announced that it was dropping its legal challenges to get the petition initiative on the ballot.

The reason the group stopped its efforts is that it ran out of money and time.

It all started earlier this year when volunteers, many from churches, across the state began collecting signatures on the petition. Opponents — mostly people who make incredible amounts of money off these predatory loans — took immediate action.

First, they filed their own petitions, meant to appear to also limit interest rates, although they actually did not, and hired people to gather signatures, especially in the same places the volunteers would be collecting theirs.

In Springfield, that turned into some confusion, and the police were even called one day. This was intentional. Confusion over what petitions said, competition for signatures and even goading the volunteers and signers were all part of the plan.

In fact, in one case, a box of signed petitions that was left unattended in a car was mysteriously missing when the driver returned.

Then, threatening letters were sent to churches that supported the effort and involved in the petition drive. The letters, sent to churches in the Kansas City area by a law firm in Grapevine, Texas, warned of legal perils if they were involved in the movement, even suggesting that there would be criminal penalties or the churches could lose their tax-exempt status. None of that is true.

Slick ads, letters and op-ed pieces in state newspapers, including the News-Leader, insisted the effort would destroy the lending industry and prevent people who genuinely needed a small, short-term loan from receiving one and the state from getting all that tax money from the loan sharks who would flee Missouri.

In fact, three men who represented these organizations — with misleading names such as Missourians for Equal Credit and Stand Up Missouri — came to the News-Leader to plead their cases with the editorial board.

Wearing expensive silk suits and sporting blindingly white shirts with monogrammed and stiffly starched cuffs held together with huge gold and diamond cuff links, these men claimed that they could not make enough money to stay in business if the loan rates were held to just double digits and that their industry was, in fact, there to help the poor and desperate.

Next, lawsuits were filed. Four challenges to the petition made it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, where they were thrown out, giving the effort a last gasp of hope.

Finally, the opponents went to court, challenging just about every one of the more than 350,000 signatures on the petitions. One pastor in Kansas City said he has been voting for most of his adult life, yet his name was struck.

The court gave the petitioners until Sept. 21 to prove the signatures were valid. With no time, and no dates open on court dockets to argue the merits, the only thing left was to fold.

When it was all said and done, the $600,000 raised (with donors fully disclosed, as by state law) by Missourians for Responsible Lending just wasn’t enough to fight the $2 million spent to keep the measure off the November ballot. That money, however, was funneled through a not-for-profit organization that has yet to name its donors.

All of this could have been avoided if the legislature had done its job and addressed this outrageous situation to begin with.

One House member, Democrat Mary Still of Columbia, did propose legislation in January that would have put the measure to a statewide vote, but, as in previous years, the effort went nowhere, leaving one to wonder if the real power in Jefferson City dresses in silk suits and gold cuff links.

Copyright Springfield News-Leader. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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