If you have a question, Steve Pokin wants to hear it.
I wasn’t in Jefferson City to see the moment on May 4 when city officials say State Rep. Curtis Trent undercut Springfield’s efforts to regulate the local payday-loan industry.
But in a way I feel like I could smell the moment.
And it didn’t smell very good to me.
Trent is a Republican who represents District 133, which includes Battlefield and much of southwest Springfield. He is a lawyer and the former deputy chief of staff for Congressman Billy Long.
My first thought was that maybe Trent had received a campaign contribution from the payday loan industry.
That’s just me.
Not that there would be anything illegal about taking money from the payday loan industry and then sticking your nose into a matter to protect that industry.
After all, during these times of joblessness and financial struggle somebody in Missouri has to stand up and fight for a multibillion-dollar industry that charges poor people 300 percent and more in short-term interest rates.
I checked online campaign finance records for Friends of Curtis Trent and, boy, he sure has a lot of friends.
One of his buddies is Stand Up Missouri, which describes itself as “a non-partisan coalition of consumers, business, civic groups & faith-based org. who joined together to protect access to safe and affordable lending options.”
In other words, it advocates for the payday loan industry.
A bill first forgotten, then resurrected
How do I know this?
For many years Stand Up Missouri has appeared in news stories throughout the state, including the News-Leader, in its ongoing fight for truth, justice and the thwarting of every effort that cities and the state have made to help poor people by capping annual interest rates that have reached as high as 1,000 percent.
Stand Up Missouri cut a check for $1,000 to Friends of Curtis Trent. It was received Oct. 3. The group also gave him $500 in 2019.
On Feb. 27 Trent introduced House Bill 2730.
The bill would have changed state law so cities like Springfield would not be able to charge a licensing fee to businesses that offer consumer installment loans if the city doesn’t charge a similar fee to other lending institutions such as banks.
In addition, it would have changed the law so short-term lenders who went to court to challenge any new restrictions or fees would automatically be entitled to costs, including attorneys’ fees.
Trent’s bill, introduced Feb. 27, went nowhere. It never had a public hearing. It was never examined closely. It was quickly forgotten.
Until May 4.
That’s when Trent introduced it as an amendment to a wide-ranging financial institution omnibus bill. The bill was passed the next day by the Senate. It will become law unless Republican Gov. Mike Parson vetoes it.
That same evening of May 4 the Springfield City Council passed its own payday loan law. The vote was 9-0. The city is home to 21 payday loan businesses.
City elected officials have grappled with payday loans for years and finally passed the law after assigning a task comprised of leading citizens to study the issue.
None of that seemed to matter to Trent, our Big Brother in Jeff City.
The city wants to charge payday lenders an annual licensing fee of $5,000.
The money would go toward enforcing city rules, helping those in debt and providing alternatives to short-term loans.
Of course, you would think, Trent conferred with city officials before adding his language to the state bill.
He did not, Mayor Ken McClure tells me.
“It came as a surprise,” he says. “No one had an opportunity to weigh in on it.”
Councilman Mike Shilling sponsored the city’s ordinance to regulate payday loans. He represents Zone 3, which is the part of the city that falls within Trent’s legislative district.
Yes, Schilling says, Trent called him.
He called Schilling on May 8 — four days later. Schilling did not return the call.
“We were kind of blindsided,” Schilling tells me.
“Lobbyists were running wild in Jefferson City — so I am told — in the last days of the session,” Schilling says.
I tried to talk to Trent. I started early because I had a hunch I would not hear back from him. I called him Wednesday. I called him Thursday. I called him Friday.
I specifically said I wanted to talk about payday loans and what impact, if any, the contributions from Stand Up Missouri had in his decision to jump into the fray as the shot clock ran down in the session. I specifically told him this story was slated to run Sunday.
Well, Trent either received one of my messages or knew telepathically that I was trying to reach him because on Friday his legislative aide Christine Bondurant called me.
She said Trent wanted to know what I wanted. I told her.
She said he was unavailable Friday.
“He is on the road.”
“I do not know for sure. I just know he is very busy and traveling a lot and doing what representatives do.”
More Pokin Around:
Since I don’t know when Trent will find the time to pull over and take a break, I’ll tell you what he told the News-Leader in a news story earlier this month.
“There’s nothing to stop the city from putting an ordinance on their payday loans,” he said. “It was not the intent to stop the city’s ordinance and I don’t expect it will be the effect.”
Trent and other Republicans distinguish between what are called “payday loans” or “car title loans” and consumer-installment loans.
Payday loans must be less than $500 and are supposed to be paid back within weeks; installment loans can be larger and are paid back over four or more months.
Mayor McClure and Brian Fogle say many of the same companies that offer payday loans offer consumer-installment loans. They say consumer-installment loans are still predatory, but less so than payday loans.
Fogle is president of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and a former banker. He was on the city’s payday loan task with others, including Mark Struckhoff, the former executive director of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.
Struckhoff questions who Trent is representing.
“I certainly do not think he was representing constituents,” he tells me. “The obvious answer is that he is representing the payday loan industry.”
Seems like “intimidation”
Susan Schmalzbauer, with Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri, points out that the language Trent added is an invitation for the short-term loan industry to sue cities like Springfield that pass regulations.
The addition says that if the industry sues and wins it automatically gets all its legal costs recouped from the municipality.
Why? she asks.
Most civil lawsuits allow plaintiffs to ask for damages.
Why does Trent explicitly want damages automatically awarded if the plaintiff wins?
“It seems like this is meant to intimidate cities,” Schmalzbauer tells me.
To better understand consumer-installment loans — and how they might differ in terms of interest rates — I went to the home page of Advance America, Cash Advance Centers Inc. of Missouri.
It has three locations in Springfield: 2419 S. Campbell Ave.; 3548 S. Campbell Ave.; and 2639 N. Kansas Expressway.
I went through the steps of applying for an online loan of $1,000, without actually getting one. Who couldn’t use $1,000 to help pay bills during this pandemic?
If I paid off my $1,000 loan in six months with 12 bi-weekly payments …. my finance charge would be $1,063.
With an annual percentage rate of 348 percent.
It occurs to me that maybe our elected state representatives should pass a law that allows lobbyists to simply vote on the many bills they actually write themselves.
Missouri could save some big bucks by eliminating the middle men, the legislators themselves.
These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper eight years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, email@example.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.
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