On Monday, Governor Shumlin announced something or other. Everybody paid attention.
On Tuesday, he signed a bill that will help a lot of people. Pretty much nobody paid any attention.
S.73 is a consumer protection bill whose primary purpose is to prevent rent-to-own stores from preying on the working poor. When I was a guest on the Mark Johnson Show after the legislative session and he asked me which piece of legislation would have the most impact, I said that for some, it wouldn’t be education reform or RESET or the budget or Lake Champlain; it’d be S.73.
Rent-to-own stores, at their worst, are a lot like payday lenders: they allow the poor to acquire consumer goods like furniture, electronics, and appliances with little or no money up front. Instead, they charge monthly lease rates. In some cases, a consumer will pay far more over the life of a lease than they would have if they’d paid cash (or had a credit card) up front. Like 200% more.
It’s usury by another name.
The House Republican caucus met Tuesday at noon, to be briefed on two bills — S.73, the so-called Rent-to-Own bill, and an economic development package that — huzzah! — actually had some Republican input.
S.73 has morphed into a multipurpose consumer protection bill. It would impose new regulations on rent-to-pwm stores, but it would also address some other holes in current law. One of its provisions is about Internet dating.
And here’s where the House Republicans (most of them, at least) turned into 13-year-old boys. There was snickering, singling, tittering, guffawing; all sorts of vaguely uncomfortable laughter. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh?
It didn’t begin to dissipate until Rep. Heidi Scheuermann pointed out that this was a serious issue — that many people are taken to the cleaners by fraudsters posing as potential mates.
The bill, as it happens, would help protect against this kind of fraud. But the men of the GOP Caucus, well, they just couldn’t keep a straight face.
This morning, I sat in on a House Appropriations Committee hearing on S.73, a bill that would set limits on the rent-to-own industry — an industry that’s virtually unregulated and preys on cash-poor Vermonters.
For those unfamiliar, RTOs offer household furnishings and appliances with very little cash up front, but interest rates that’d make a banker blush. Not to mention undisclosed fees and charges. According to Legislative Counsel David Hall, current state law gives the Attorney General rule-making authority; but RTOs write their contracts in a way that effectively puts them beyond the reach of current law.
Hey, I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
The result is a Wild West marketplace that, according to VPIRG, results in consumers “paying many times the original price of the original item- far more than they would pay if they purchased the item from a traditional retail establishment.”
The bill would establish price caps and disclosure requirements on the industry.