The magnificent cowardice of Nevada elected officials

April 16, 2019 6:31 am
now that song is stuck in your head sorry

(Nevada Current file photo)

There is no reason to rehash reasons Nevada should do what nearly 20 states have done: cap interest rates payday lenders can charge so as to run the bad actors out of the state.

Your Nevada Legislature certainly didn’t think there was any need to rehash the issue. On the contrary, Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee Chair Ellen Spiegel and other lawmakers indicated exactly zero interest (as opposed to the 652 percent annual APR charged by Nevada’s payday loan industry) in hashing the issue at all. The common-sense and much-needed measure to cap rates, sponsored by Assemblywomen Heidi Swank and Lesley Cohen and six co-sponsors, was never scheduled for a committee hearing, instead dying a quiet, ignominious death somewhere in a drawer in Spiegel’s desk.

So no need to recount the exorbitant interest rates, the practices that effectively trap low-income Nevadans in an endless cycle of economic servitude, the bankruptcy of the argument that there are no alternatives to payday loans … Unlike your layabout Nevada Legislature and governor, the Current has already both hashed and rehashed those and other damning characteristics of an industry Nevada doesn’t need and shouldn’t want.

But just one or two additional points may be in order.

First, wow, the stench. Allowing a notoriously predatory and pernicious industry to continue perniciously preying on Nevada’s most economically vulnerable people is a monumental act of political callousness and cowardice. Spiegel, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and every other elected official who played any role whatsoever in assuring the rate cap bill didn’t even get a hearing are, to use a technical term, lily-livered yellow-bellied cowards. The lot of them should hang their heads in shame.

Alas, there is no time for anyone to hang their heads in shame. Nevada’s asinine every-other-year schedule of truncated legislative sessions means everyone must rush! rush! rush! The burden of considering so much legislation in such little time leaves scant opportunity for remorse. And any personal reflection that can be squeezed into the busy Carson City schedule is taken up by relentless, and relentlessly annoying, back-patting and self-congratulation, usually for bravely moving forward with some legislation or other that does not upset a valued class of campaign contributors.

For some reason (probably because I’m a hick from Wyoming) I am reminded of when hired gun Tom Horn got tricked by a U.S. marshal into confessing to shooting a rancher’s son (most speculation asserts the real target was the kid’s dad) in 1901.

“It was the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done,” Horn said.

Dying without even a committee hearing, the payday lending bill was also coldly killed from a safe distance. And for Nevadans who are the industry’s prey, elected officials quietly pretending “nothing to see here, everyone move along” may not be a dirty trick, exactly. But it is some filthy jiggery-pokery.

Earlier this month a review of campaign contributions by the Nevada Capital News reported the payday lending industry has contributed more than $200,000 to state lawmakers and the governor since 2016.

The financial predator who has been publicly throwing the most weight around in Carson City is Dollar Loan Center. Its owner was so confident lawmakers were too cowardly to even hear the rate cap bill, he redirected his industry’s considerable clout to stack a hearing on a milquetoast data gathering bill with oodles of Dollar Loan Center employees (hopefully they were getting paid for showing up!).

Dollar Loan Center’s founder and poohbah is a guy named Charles Brennan. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader (pretty good name btw) in Brennan’s native South Dakota ran a delightful profile of Brennan a few years ago, and he is colorful character!  Excerpt: “Chuck started selling the opportunity to come into the ring and oil the girls down, or you could bid to wrestle with the girls or hang out with them after the show.” Brennan now lives in Las Vegas, which is in Nevada, home of the first female majority legislature in the country. But I digress…

Brennan’s company and Brennan personally have contributed heavily to Nevada politicians. For example, when Steve Sisolak told the Nevada Independent in January that gosh he just didn’t know whatever people would do without the vital services selflessly provided by Nevada’s wonderful payday loan industry (I’m paraphrasing, but not much), Sisolak was spewing a specious argument and feigning concern just a month after Brennan had contributed 25,000 American dollars to Sisolak’s inaugural committee. Merry Christmas, Steve! Love, Santa Chuck.

South Dakota ran off its native son. In 2016, 75 percent of South Dakota voters approved a ballot initiative to cap payday loan rates at 36 percent, prompting Brennan and other payday lenders to abandon the state.

In that South Dakota campaign, initiative supporters spent $87,000. The industry and its backers spent nearly $1.4 million. The industry outspent the people 16 to one, and still got their hats handed to them.

That’s the model for Nevada of course. Nevada elected officials have shown they can’t be trusted to ever have the guts, sense, or heart to stand up to the payday loan industry. The only way predatory payday lenders in Nevada will be reined in is when voters do it themselves. So yes, there is no need to rehash the many reasons to run the industry out of the state now, while the Legislature is in session. Hopefully, however, there will be a good reason to subject the industry to rigorous publicly scrutiny next year: a ballot initiative.

Meanwhile, lest you be left with the impression that the payday lending industry serves no useful purpose whatsoever and is merely a wretched monster toppling Nevadans further into financial insecurity, misery and despair, there is one thing about the industry for which Nevadans should be thankful: By throwing around money and influence in Carson City and leading Nevada elected officials around by the nose, it has demonstrated just how craven and cowardly those elected officials can be.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.