Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wisconsin Legislature A Subsidiary Of Special Interests

Years ago, in what seems another life, I worked for the Milwaukee Journal and wrote a series about special interest lobbying in the Wisconsin State Capitol.

At the center were big bucks. Super-lobbyists for the tobacco interests, and others. It's a story that writes itself and we see again that it's playing out to the detriment of the general public.

Last year we witnessed the power pf alcohol lobbies to water down the push for genuine drunk driving reforms - - despite drunk driving being shamefully documented in blood on the state's roads.

When all was said and done, legislators congratulated themselves on a weak package that kept virtually all first-time offenses as civil tickets - - A Wisconsin statutory anomaly.

And repeat offenders still get three strikes before a 4th conviction is treated as a felony. Wisconsin's paltry alcohol taxes were not raised even a penny to pay for more enforcement, education and treatment.

Now unfolding is a similar tale: a weak bill to begin to regulate so-called "payday" lenders is in the hands of legislators.

But this Assembly bill does cap payday loan interest.

Pushing the bill is Speaker Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville). He had been a proponent of stronger regulation,changed his position, and admitted a dating relationship with one of the payday industry's paid lobbyists.

The State Senate may approve a tougher measure, including limits on the industry's signature and usurious interest rates, but who knows?

Sheridan says he did nothing wrong, and he has a right to a social life.

But nothing the legislature is doing with payday lending or OWI reform inspires confidence, as lobbyists - - many of whom are former legislators - - have a clubby relationship with incumbent lawmakers.

It's an open secret. Nothing changes.

And with the Supreme Court approving direct corporate funding of political campaign advertising, there's no reason to think that the private sector's management of the legislative process will be restrained, or refocused with the public interest in mind.

They win.

We lose.

For the legislative special interests, everyday becomes payday.


Anonymous said...

As someone who has helped write the new law on Drunk Driving and is working on Payday Lending Reforms, I dispute your cheap shot at what is certainly an imperfect Legislature. But to say that we did nothing on OWI reform because of money or "special interests" is absurd Jim. There are not enough votes for Sobriety Checkpoints or First time criminalization. And liberals like yourself are the first in line to cry for less prisoners and more rehab, which is exactly what we tried to do. The Payday Lending bill is stronger in the Assembly...again there are not 50 votes for a 36% rate cap given how messed up credit markets are right now, we are in a tough spot. If Congress had been tougher on banks and credit card companies on usury and other consumer abuses, there would be less demand for these loan centers with spotty track records. But short of safer alternatives, all a ban/rate cap would do is force more vulnerable people into even more dangerous places like pawn shops, casinos, etc. More importantly, I ask you to dig back to when you were in Mayor Norquists office and document to your readers... the number of times Norquist asked the Legislature to reform payday lending and how many Zoning permits or licenses he opposed. OR is...Trust and accountability just a one way street with you?

James Rowen said...

It's always a risk debating an anonymous person, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt and continue.

Read more carefully. I did not say the legislature did nothing on OWI reform.

I said: "When all was said and done, legislators congratulated themselves on a weak package that kept virtually all first-time offenses as civil tickets..." and I think that is an accurate statement and more than a mere opinion.

I think it's a cop-out to blame national credit problems for the situation with payday lending.

Wisconsin is the only state that does not regulate these businesses, so that unwillingness began long before the national credit system melted down.

You again shirt the focus to Norquist. That's irrelevant.

Where are the legislative members or leaders who have gone out there to continually educate the public and colleagues and editorial writers about payday lending issues? If the votes are not there, legislators who want strong and effective regulation have themselves to blame.