Payday borrowers to get more time, House says

Published 12:04 pm Wednesday, January 19, 2011

JACKSON — The Mississippi House passed a bill Tuesday that would give consumers more time to pay off short-term loans and would reduce the maximum amount of interest payday lenders could charge.

The bill also would let payday lending businesses operate at least five more years in Mississippi. It passed 78-38 after more than an hour of debate.

The bill moves to the Senate, and it’s unclear what will happen there.

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Supporters say payday lenders give consumers access to quick cash to buy medicine, pay utility bills and cover other needs. Opponents say the lending companies charge prohibitively high interest rates that make it difficult for consumers to get out of debt.

Mississippi has allowed payday lenders to operate in the state since 1998. Current state law expires in 2012, which means payday lenders would go out of business if legislators don’t renew the law before next year.

Other states have debated whether to revise their payday lending laws. North Carolina stopped payday lending in 2006.

Documents provided to Mississippi lawmakers showed that some loans from payday lenders in the state carry 527 percent annual interest rates.

The bill that passed Tuesday would reduce consumers’ potential out-of-pocket costs by giving borrowers up to 21 days to pay back any loan of $200 or less and 28 to 30 days to repay loans that are $201 or higher. Under current law, the payback period is the next payday, regardless whether that’s in a week, two weeks or at a different time.

House Banking Committee Chairman George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said the bill also would cap costs by letting lenders charge a $20 fee per $100 borrowed for loans under $200 or a $21.95 fee per $100 borrowed on loans that are $201 or more. That’s roughly the equivalent of cutting the 527 percent annual interest rate in half, lawmakers said.

The bill preserves the services offered to those who use it, though the lowered fees may pose issues for lenders in small communities that don’t see as much business, said Dan Robinson, spokesman for the Borrow Smart consortium of more than 400 payday lenders in Mississippi and Alabama.

“The smaller businesses are a concern,” said Robinson, whose business owns a Cash Inc. on Mission 66 that is considered a “larger” store in terms of business. “It would be up to a 30 percent reduction in revenues.

“Vicksburg’s got more of a volume because of the size of the city,” he said, adding his stores in such places as Lexington and Raleigh would be hurt by interest rate reductions in the bill.

During Tuesday’s debate, Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, quoted biblical admonitions against usury as he urged his colleagues to put the payday lending industry out of business in one of the poorest states in the nation.

Evans also mentioned the ministers’ prayers that open the House session each day, often invoking the name of Jesus.

“I think you have a chance today to put your money where your mouth is every time we open this session,” Evans said. “‘What would Jesus do?’ You heard that before? I think I know what he would do.”

Flaggs argued for the bill by saying consumers need access to quick cash to buy medicine, pay utility bills and pay for other necessities.

“I would never question your Christianity,” Flaggs said. “It ain’t for me to do.”

Jamie Fulmer, spokesman for the lending company Advance America, said Tuesday that payday lenders want to continue operating in a regulated environment in Mississippi.

“The House clearly recognizes that this is a product that meets the needs of consumers,” Fulmer said.

During a hearing last week, religious leaders urged members of the House and Senate to let Mississippi’s payday lending law expire. The Rev. Carol Spencer, chairwoman of the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference, said the businesses’ lending practices are “immoral.”

Spencer said allowing the law to expire would restore a maximum interest rate of 36 percent on small loans for everyone at every financial institution.