Payday industry says it helps people in need, New Mexico lawmaker says a fix is needed

Lifestyle and Budget Associated Press

Jill Mooney recently took out a $300 loan from a storefront business to get out of a financial jam, putting up her $1,400 car as collateral.

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The Albuquerque mother of four thought it would take roughly three, $100-a-month payments to be done with the loan. But it took seven months, and the interest rate ended up being more than 200 percent.

"They take advantage of you," said Mooney of the loan outlets.

High-interest lending practices have been a target of consumer advocates for decades in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the country. They failed again this year in the Legislature, however, as bills that would have capped interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent fell by the wayside.

Efforts to reshape short-term loan laws have gained some traction in other states, leading to questions about whether campaign donations are swaying New Mexico's politicians.

Lawmakers say they aren't swayed by contributions, and lenders say the industry creates jobs and helps people who otherwise wouldn't be able to get loans because of their credit history.

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Small loan lenders contributed more than $103,000 to New Mexico candidates and political committees on both sides of the aisle in 2014, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Nationwide, the industry's total campaign contributions topped $6.5 million.

The industry wasn't among the top political spenders in New Mexico. By comparison, total spending by economic interest industries in the state was nearly $24 million last year, with the oil and gas industry pumping in at least $1.6 million.

A spokesman for a lending chain that operates in New Mexico and about 29 other states said legislators understand that preserving the industry is better than eliminating it.

John Rabenold of Ohio-based Axcess Financial Services Inc., which owns the retail brand Check 'n Go, said a 36 percent cap on small loans is akin to prohibition and would not cover the business' capital costs.

"Prohibition has been tried in this country, and it doesn't work. With prohibition, consumers are not better off because they go to unregulated sources of credit," he said. "Expensive credit is better than no credit at all."

Most of his company's loans have interest rates of 175 percent or less. He says that allows the company to compete against higher-priced lenders.

The advocates who complain don't represent the consumer, Rabenold said, noting that they opposed a compromise bill that would have capped rates at 100 percent. Rabenold said the measure would have amounted to "reasonable reform."

Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat, has unsuccessfully pushed for overhauls. Chasey does not believe that payday loan lobbyists sway lawmakers, but she does think there's a lack of political will to enact interest rate restrictions in New Mexico.

"It's such a damaging industry," Chasey said, adding, "there are more predatory loan places (in the state) than fast food outlets."

She suggested the only way to bring change might be to take it to the voters through a constitutional amendment.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia either ban payday loans or cap interest rates at 36 percent, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Attorney General Hector Balderas said he would support a reasonable cap on interest rates. His office currently has two lawsuits pending against loan companies for making loans in excess of 520 percent and 1,000 percent and using practices that push borrowers into long-term indebtedness.