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Politics

Payday loan law is made an issue in Cabinet race

One attorney general candidate disputes the merits of a tough 2001 law the other sponsored.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published October 11, 2006


A 2001 bill sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell created some of the toughest regulations of the payday loan industry in the country.

It was co-authored by a Republican, passed unanimously by the Legislature and roundly praised by Gov. Jeb Bush.

But now that Campbell is running for attorney general, his Republican opponent and a newly formed political action group are attacking the legislation as a de facto tax on the poor.

Ah, politics.

The Republican candidate, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, says Campbell's bill was ill conceived, burdening Florida's neediest residents. "He acts too hastily," McCollum said of Campbell.

And a radio ad financed in part by the Republican Attorneys General Association and airing in South Florida claims Campbell's bill raised interest rates "to the equivalent of 390 percent a year."

McCollum and the political group, Citizens Speaking Out, say Campbell's bill allows short-term lenders to continue charging huge interest rates to people seeking an advance on their paycheck.

But Florida's interest rates are among the lowest in the country, the state regulator of the industry said Tuesday. And even Republicans are coming to Campbell's defense. Former Comptroller Bob Milligan defended the legislation as proconsumer, and a model being implemented across the nation.

The attacks, Campbell says, are about politics and not substance.

"I suggest Bill McCollum read the bill before he starts commenting on it," said Campbell, a Broward County lawyer who has been in the state Senate since 1996.

The ad is being paid for by Citizens Speaking Out, not McCollum. Neither the chairman of the group, Pat Bainter of Gainesville, nor the group's registered agent returned calls seeking comment.

Campbell's bill, the ad states, is "trapping some of Florida's most vulnerable people on a treadmill of debt."

But the bill actually prevents debts from building up, say Milligan, state regulator Don Saxon and others.

The bill created a $500 limit for cash advances, eliminated the option to roll over payments in exchange for higher fees and interest charges, and prohibited people from having more than one loan outstanding.

The bill that passed the Legislature capped interest charges at 10 percent Campbell originally proposed 15 percent.

Before 2001, Campbell said, there was no regulation.

"This is totally proconsumer," said Campbell. "Any other interpretation is just bogus."

The law also created the first statewide database in the nation that monitors the transactions and the lenders, said Saxon, commissioner of the state's Office of Financial Regulation. The program has been almost a universal success, he said, and has been implemented in five other states.

"If you can get over the notion that people should be entitled to get a loan, if you can get over that hump, the next question is can you stomach a loan that is going to have a pretty high percentage," said former Republican lawmaker Curt Kiser, an industry lobbyist who sought the reforms.

Payday lenders, he said, fill a financial niche most banks won't: short-term, high-risk loans.

Campbell said his opponents are exaggerating the high interest rates over the course of the year to make the regulation seem lax, when it's not.

McCollum says Campbell does not always examine the ramifications of his actions. Campbell once sponsored a bill that would require women to list the men they slept with in a newspaper if they wanted to give their child up for adoption. Campbell said it was an unintended consequence of a bill he inherited and did not write. When the problem was revealed, he fixed the law, he said.

"Sen. Campbell, with all due respect," said McCollum, "always has an excuse."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or asharockman@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 11, 2006, 05:43:50]


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