Washington State passed some of the strongest payday lending reforms in the nation in 2009. But now a group of lawmakers want to scrap those reforms in favor of a proposal backed by Moneytree, a local payday lender.
The rule changes they're going after limit the size and frequency of payday loans and provide a free installment plan option to help borrowers who can’t pay back their loan when it’s due.
According to data from the Department of Financial Institutions, these reforms hit payday lenders hard. In fact, before the reforms took effect, payday loans were available at 603 locations across Washington and lenders were making more than $1.3 billion in loans per year. Last year, there were only 173 locations and it was a $331 million industry.
Now, a proposal, sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, would replace the payday loan system in Washington with a “small consumer installment loan” system that would clear the way for lenders like Moneytree to start offering 6-month to 12-month loans with effective interest rates up to 213 percent.
The proposed law would also increase the maximum size of a loan from $700 to $1,000 and remove the current eight-loan cap, effectively removing the circuit breaker keeping borrowers from getting trapped in a debt cycle.
What’s more, instead of the easy-to-understand fee payday loans we have now, the new loans would have a much more complex fee structure consisting of an amortized 15 percent origination fee, a 7.5 percent monthly maintenance fee, and a 36 percent annual interest rate.
“It is incomprehensible, after years of working on payday reforms that finally worked in Washington, that lawmakers would throw out that law and replace it with one created by Moneytree.” says Bruce Neas, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a group that provides legal assistance to low-income clients.
Proponents say the new system could save borrowers money. And they’re right, technically, since interest and fees accrue over the life of the loan. However, a loan would need to be paid off in around five weeks or less for that to pencil out—and that seems highly unlikely. In Colorado, which has a similar installment loan product, the average loan is carried for 99 days. What’s more, according the National Consumer Law Center, “loan flipping” in Colorado has led to borrowers averaging 333 days in debt per year, or about 10.9 months.
While numerous consumer advocates have spoken out against the proposal—along with payday loan reform hawks like Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and even the state’s Attorney General—few have voiced support for it. In fact, in recent committee hearings on the proposal, only four people testified in favor of it:
Dennis Bassford, CEO of Moneytree;
Dennis Schaul, CEO of the payday lending trade organization known as the Consumer Financial Services Association of America;
Rep. Larry Springer, prime House sponsor of the proposal and recipient of $2,850 in campaign contributions from Moneytree executives;
Sen. Marko Liias, prime Senate sponsor of the proposal and recipient of $3,800 in campaign contributions from Moneytree executives.
Springer and Liias aren’t the only state legislators Moneytree executives backed with campaign contributions, though. In the past two years, executives with Moneytree have contributed $95,100 to Washington State Legislature races.
At least 65 percent of the money went to Republicans and the Majority Coalition Caucus. Which is expected, since Republicans have been loyal supporters of Moneytree in the past. When a similar proposal was brought to the Senate floor two years ago, only one Republican voted against it.
More telling is where the remaining money went. Of the $33,150 Moneytree gave to Democrats, $20,500 went to 11 of the 16 Democratic House sponsors of the proposal and $5,700 went to two of the four Democratic Senate sponsors.
Both the Senate and House versions of the proposal have cleared their first major hurdles by moving out of the policy committees. The bills are now up for consideration in their respective chamber’s Rules Committee. The Senate version appears to be the one most likely to move to a floor vote first, since the Republican Majority Coalition Caucus controls the Senate.
Regardless of which bill moves first, payday lenders undoubtedly want to see it happen soon.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established by Congress in response to the Great Recession, is poised to release their initial draft of regulations for payday lenders. Although the agency’s deliberations are private, it is widely believed the rules will crack down on the number and size of loans payday lenders can make.
Those rules may well affect Moneytree and other payday lenders Washington.
In the likely chance they do, payday lenders could see their profits shrink. Unless, that is, Washington scraps its current system in favor of one carefully crafted by payday lenders looking to avoid federal regulators.