Ohio legislative Republicans, with minor exceptions, finally stand up to the payday lobby: Thomas Suddes

July 14, 2018

Ohio legislative Republicans, with minor exceptions, finally stand up to the payday lobby: Thomas Suddes

Thanks to a determined state legislator from Springfield, his Toledo ally and the General Assembly’s Republican leadership, Ohioans may soon be protected by a pro-consumer payday lending law.

The legislator is Republican Rep. Kyle Koehler. He and a Toledo Democrat, Rep. Michael Ashford, also a strong advocate for Ohio’s consumers, are co-sponsors of bipartisan House Bill 123, which Ohio’s Senate passed this week in a 21-9 vote. Ohio’s House passed the bill 71-17 on June 7.

It took 15 months for the House to act, thanks to the relentless opposition of the payday loan industry, which has been charging Ohio borrowers some of the highest rates in the United States.

Sen. Dave Burke, a Marysville Republican who voted for HB 123, said payday lenders had fielded 41 Statehouse lobbyists to fight Koehler and Ashford’s bill, cleveland.com’s Laura Hancock reported.

The Senate has 33 members. With 41 payday lending lobbyists in the field, that’s one payday loan lobbyist per senator – with eight lobbyists to spare, the Statehouse equivalent of human-wave attacks.

Self-interest fuels politics. The payday loan industry has every right to defend its profits. And Koehler and the many others who want to reform how the industry does business in Ohio have every right to push for change.

General Assembly leaders and committee chairs umpire such contests. In the Senate, the keen-eyed umps on HB 123 were Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, and Sen. Scott Oelslager, a North Canton Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

True, neither Obhof nor Oelslager has enlisted in Ralph Nader’s Raiders. Senate passage of HB 123, and House passage, shepherded in June by Speaker Ryan Smith, a Gallia County Republican, were matters of practical politics. Still, if, as expected, Smith’s House approves Senate changes in HB 123, the bill will go to Gov. John Kasich, who almost certainly will sign it.

That’s a remarkable turnabout. The Koehler-Ashford bill was all but ignored by legislative leaders after it was introduced in March 2017. But three months ago, then-Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, a Clinton County Republican, resigned. It turned out that the FBI was investigating a London junket Rosenberger had taken. The junket included payday loan lobbyists.

If you want to do to a General Assembly member what garlic does to a vampire, say “FBI” within earshot of the Statehouse. Given the scuttlebutt surrounding Rosenberger’s resignation, there was no way the legislature’s Republicans couldn’t pass some kind of payday lending reform. The question was whether the bill would have teeth.

HB 123 does – and Senate Republicans (Obhof and Oelslager) polished them. Decisive in helping make that happen: data and testimony marshaled by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Nick Bourke, and campaigning by Ohioans for Payday Loan Reform, a bipartisan coalition that includes the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council, the Columbus Urban League and the Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development.

The nine Senate Republicans who voted “no” on HB 123 live in counties that voted “yes” on the 2008 statewide referendum that capped payday-loan annual percentage rates at 28 percent (a cap that payday lenders found ways around, prompting Koehler and Ashford to introduce HB 123).

For example, Sen. John Eklund, a Munson Township Republican, represents Portage County and parts of Geauga and Lake counties. He voted “no” on HB 123. But in 2008, 68 percent of those voting on the ballot issue in Geauga County supported capping payday loan APRs; so did 67 percent of those voting in Lake County, and 65 percent of those voting in Portage County.

Also voting “no” on HB 123 was Sen. Kris Jordan, a Republican from the village of Ostrander, near Delaware, who represents Delaware and Knox counties and parts of Franklin County. In 2008, 67 percent of those voting on the ballot issue in Delaware County supported capping payday loan APRs; so did 69 percent of those voting in Franklin County, and 64 percent of those voting in Knox County.

True, as the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke told constituents in the 1700s, a legislator must use his or her judgment in deciding issues rather than just be a loudspeaker for the opinions of the folks back home. But as to payday lending, Ohio’s folks back home didn’t just sound off. They voted. 

Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.

To reach Thomas Suddes: tsuddes@cleveland.com, 216-999-4689

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