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Payday lending bill misses cut

camie.young@gwinnettdailypost.com

ATLANTA - It was "two strikes and you're out'' Tuesday for a bid to bring payday lending back to Georgia after a three-year absence.

One week after rejecting legislation legalizing the high-interest short-term loans, the House agreed Tuesday to reconsider that vote, then defeated the bill again.

The death of payday lending came on the annual Crossover Day in the General Assembly.

Any bill that did not pass the legislative chamber where it originated by the end of Tuesday's daylong session was considered dead for the year.

Some of the major bills that were eligible for consideration heading into Crossover Day survived the marathon, some didn't and yet others were still awaiting action late Tuesday night.

"It's fantastic,'' Allison Wall, executive director of Georgia Watch, the group that led the fight against payday lending, said Tuesday after that bill fell short for the second time. "This is consumer protection in action.''

Payday lending was illegal in Georgia even before the Legislature voted to ban the industry in 2004. But payday lenders flourished because the law lacked stiff penalties and was seldom enforced.

Armed with campaign contributions, industry lobbyists pushed hard this year to restore payday lending, backing a bill loaded with safeguards supporters argued would make lenders more responsible than they were before the ban.

But Wall said the legislation would have allowed lenders to charge annual interest rates of 391 percent, far above the 60 percent cap the state imposes on other loans.

"I just don't think triple-digit interest rates are an option anyone would find acceptable,'' she said.

While House members supported the bill Tuesday 82-77, that wasn't enough to gain passage. It takes 91 votes to approve legislation in the 180-member chamber.

Jabo Covert, a lobbyist for the industry, was upbeat despite the defeat.

Covert blamed the loss on "misinformation'' opponents spread among lawmakers. He said payday lenders will work to correct those misconceptions in time to push the bill again next year.

"The demand for the product is not going to diminish, nor is the desire of our consumers for this service,'' he said.

While opponents were able to stop payday lending, legislation derided by critics as "private cities'' survived a near-death experience to clear the Senate.

A bill and accompanying constitutional amendment would allow developers to form "infrastructure development districts'' to accelerate construction of roads, schools and water and sewer lines in undeveloped areas.

Supporters say the legislation would provide a better way to manage growth.

Opponents say it would give district governing boards powers that should be reserved for cities.

While the bill passed easily early in the day, the amendment calling for a November 2008 vote fell one vote shy of the needed two-thirds majority.

However, to avoid killing the measure, senators voted to leave open the possibility of reconsidering the amendment. They did just that nearly five hours later and passed it 40-13.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, accused majority Republicans of "strong-arming'' senators for their votes.

"This is the kind of bullying we do not need in the Senate, we do not need in this state,'' he said.

But others, including Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said they didn't understand delaying legislation that has been under discussion for three years.

On the House side, lawmakers voting virtually along party lines passed a bill sponsored by Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, that would curb eligibility for Georgia's financially struggling children's health insurance program.

Under the bill, which passed 101-63 and now moves to the Senate, families with incomes only up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level would qualify for PeachCare for Kids, down from the current 235 percent.

The eligibility change would not affect children now enrolled in the program.

Richardson said the bill is necessary to ensure that PeachCare continues to be available for families who need it most, those with incomes barely above the threshold for Medicaid.

"This is a small step toward reining in a good program and keeping it ... for the poorest of the poor,'' he said.

But House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, questioned the bill's timing. He said the state shouldn't tamper with PeachCare while Congress still is considering legislation to plug a federal shortfall affecting children's heath programs in Georgia and 13 other states.

"Let's don't pull the rug out of children's health care in the middle of going to our Congress folks and asking them to help us,'' he said.

Also, the Senate approved a constitutional amendment aimed at protecting the financial viability of the HOPE Scholarship program.

The amendment, which now moves to the House, has been part of Gov. Sonny Perdue's legislative agenda for two years running but was blocked last year by Democrats.

"A year does make a difference,'' said Sen. Joseph Carter, R-Tifton, who carried the resolution for the governor. "There is a bipartisan spirit in this body that I'm proud of.''

The House was the first of the two chambers to adjourn on Crossover Day.

Shortly after 9 p.m., what promised to be a lengthy debate over whether to overhaul Georgia's law governing hospitals and other health care facilities was averted when lawmakers voted to send the bill back to the Rules Committee, effectively killing it.

The Senate was still in session at press time late Tuesday night. Senators had yet to take up several major bills, including one that would allow workers to keep guns in their cars in their employer's parking lot.