Wisconsin lawmakers agree to regulate payday lendersWisconsin lawmakers agreed to regulate the payday lending industry, take steps to turn around failing public schools and legalize the sale of raw milk as the session ended early today.
By: Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press Writer, Superior Telegram
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin lawmakers agreed to regulate the payday lending industry, take steps to turn around failing public schools and legalize the sale of raw milk as the session ended early today.
The measures won final approval in the Assembly late Thursday and early Friday and were headed to Gov. Jim Doyle as lawmakers wrapped up the legislative session that began in January 2009. Not winning approval were measures to promote the use of renewable energy, to deregulate the landline telephone industry and to overhaul Wisconsin voting laws.
The regulations on stores that offer payday and auto title loans came after years of debate and intense lobbying by the industry. Wisconsin had been the only state not to regulate the industry, which consumer advocates said allowed its rapid growth and trapped too many borrowers who take out short-term loans with high interest rates in a cycle of debt.
"This will be the most significant consumer protection bill this body has taken action on this session," said Assembly Majority Leader Thomas Nelson, D-Kaukauna.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, acknowledged the bill did not go as far as he would have liked but called it a compromise that would stop the industry's most abusive practices.
"No longer will we be hearing horror stories by people who are victimized by unscrupulous practices," he said.
Advocates for the poor said the bill did not go far enough because lawmakers declined to impose a cap on the interest rates that lenders can charge.
Under the plan, loans will be limited to $1,500 or 35 percent of the applicant's monthly income, whichever is less. Borrowers can roll the loans over only once and payday loan stores can't be located within 1,500 feet of one another or 150 feet of residential areas. Borrowers could cancel loans within 24 hours. And auto title loans will be limited to one per customer for no more than 50 percent of the car's value, excluding fees.
Doyle said earlier this week he would sign any bill that passed because some regulation is better than none. The Assembly gave final approval on a 72-25 vote, hours after the Senate acted on the plan its sponsor, Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, called a comprehensive approach to overseeing the industry.
The industry had been fighting hard against regulation, spending $669,000 last year on lobbying. Payday lenders also donated $75,000 to state lawmakers' campaign committees last year.
In other action on the Legislature's final day:
— FAILING SCHOOLS: A bill designed to help struggling schools, including those in Milwaukee, won final approval on a 50-47 vote in the Assembly.
The measure gives school boards and Wisconsin's education superintendent more power to intervene in the worst-performing schools. It requires school boards to move teachers to problem schools and establish a uniform curriculum in districts identified as needing help.
More learning time, including extending the school day or year, could also be ordered. And the worst public schools would be required to adopt new standards for evaluating teachers and principals, with academic improvement being a significant factor.
Republicans said the steps wouldn't be enough to change the culture at failing schools, but Democrats said they were a step in the right direction.
Doyle said he would sign the bill, which he called "a significant step forward for Milwaukee's education system."
— RAW MILK: Farmers could make limited sales of raw milk under a bill that received final approval on a 60-35 vote in the Assembly early Friday. If signed by Doyle, sales would be legal only through the end of 2011 while lawmakers work on a more permanent plan.
Supporters say raw milk tastes better and has health benefits, and Rep. Phil Garthwaite of Dickeyville said legalizing sales will help small farmers.
But Rep. Marlin Schneider of Wisconsin Rapids warned the bill puts the entire dairy industry at risk because one outbreak of disease would taint all Wisconsin cheese and milk.The Food and Drug Administration opposes the sale of raw milk, saying it may contain harmful bacteria that can sicken and even kill. Doyle has said he is open to the bill if he is satisfied it doesn't jeopardize the safety of the milk supply.
— PHONE DEREGULATION: A phone deregulation bill that would have stripped state telecommunication regulators of their authority to oversee rates for landline phones and investigate complaints died in the Senate after it passed the Assembly.
— REGIONAL TRANSIT: A plan to create a regional transit authority for Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin was derailed in the state Senate, which did not take up the bill. A version passed in the Assembly would have required Milwaukee County voters' approval of a half-cent sales tax to pay for bus services.
The Assembly voted for a bill on Thursday evening that would create a regional transit authority covering the Fox Valley area, which includes Appleton and Oshkosh. But the 51-46 vote was merely symbolic because the Senate had already adjourned without approving it.
— ELECTIONS: A sweeping elections reform bill that would have allowed residents to register to vote over the Internet or when they sign up for a driver's license wasn't debated before the Senate adjourned.
Associated Press Writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.