Wanted: More masochists in Missouri

Honestly, I think you have to be a masochist to work for social justice in MIssouri.

Case in point:  the recent effort to get an initiative on the ballot that would allow voters to put a cap on payday lending in the state.

I say “recent effort,” but in fact some people have been working on this for more than a decade.  An organization called Communities Creating Opportunity in Kansas City has been working to get some regulation into the payday loan industry for 13 years.

Payday lenders (along with those who loan money in exchange for your car title, and the notorious “rent to own” outfits), dot the Missouri landscape like boils on a suffering Job.  In some rural areas there are three or four around the courthouse square.  In urban areas, they set up shop in low-income communities, where their victims are frequently people of color or recent immigrants.

Because these outfits charge exorbitant interest rates for short-term loans (in Missouri, the average rate is 445 percent, but it can go as high as 1,000 percent if the borrower repeatedly renews the loan), advocates have for years tried to bring some justice into the system.  Missouri legislators, many of whom receive hefty campaign contributions from out-of-state payday lenders, have resisted every attempt to regulate the industry.

Finally, in 2011, enough people got fed up to tackle the issue head-on.  A group of grassroots advocates, working as Missourians for Responsible Lending, developed a petition to get the issue on the ballot in November 2012.  The petition called for payday loan interest rates to be capped at 36 percent, which is the exactly what the Federal government allows lenders to charge members of the active-duty military.

Today, these grassroots advocates are wiping the grass stains off of their petitions.  They have been felled by the Roundup of the payday loan industry.

It didn’t take the money-changers long to bring in their big guns.  Last winter, as petitions began circulating and people began talking about the abuses of the industry, leaders of churches and synagogues across the state received letters from a law firm in Grapevine, TX.  The letter warned clergy (erroneously, but who cares about the facts) that their institutions could end up losing their tax exemptions if they supported the petition drive.

When lies and intimidation didn’t work, the profiteers tried other tactics.  Hundreds of signed petitions were stolen from a car in southwest Missouri,  Petitioners were harassed on the streets.  Fake petitions were printed and circulated in an effort to confuse voters.  Deceptive ad campaigns were launched.  Millions of dollars were spent before industry leaders resorted to the courts, where they used every avenue available  to assert that hundreds of thousands of legally signed and verified petitions did not qualify for the ballot in November.

It was too much for the good guys.  In a real-life version of Survivor, the predatory lenders, unencumbered by morals or ethics, were able to outspend, outwit and outlast them.

It was a sad irony that Missourians for Responsible Lending announced that they were suspending their legal challenges on Labor Day, a day set aside to honor workers and their many contributions to our communities.  Give Missourians a Raise, also a grassroots effort to collect signatures on a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage in Missouri, also threw in the towel on Labor Day.

“Despite Missourians’ clear desire to have both initiatives on the November ballot, we have reluctantly concluded that the legal hurdles erected by the payday lending industry, their allies and their lawyers are too high for us to cross before the September 21 deadline for finalizing the November ballot,” said the Rev. James Bryan, treasurer for Missourians for Responsible Lending.

Advocates for reform are vowing that they are not giving up, and I don’t doubt that they will be back to fight again.  But I’m beginning to wonder if the supply of masochists might be running dry in Missouri.

Payday lending reform and increasing the minimum wage are just two issues that have been beaten back in this state.  We’re now on our third try in ten years to increase our cigarette tax, which is the lowest in the nation.  Our legislators have vowed not to expand Medicaid (never mind that it would bring millions of dollars into the state; it’s a part of—gasp—Obamacare!)  In our last legislative session we witnessed our leaders pitting healthcare for the blind against funding for higher education.  We still have the death penalty in this state and dozens lined up on death row.  We don’t bother to collect taxes on purchases made on-line and our tax code hasn’t been modernized since the 1930s.  Yes, we are the Show-Me State.

Masochism is defined as “a pervasive pattern of self-defeating behavior.”  If this sounds like one of your character defects, I welcome you to join us in Missouri and pick one of these issues to work on.  We’ll show you frustration.