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Payday loan companies approved changes to their own bill, emails show

The CEOs and lobbyists for Florida's largest payday loan companies approved changes to a controversial industry bill as it worked its way through the Legislature this year, emails show.

Emails between a Florida House employee show she repeatedly asked the industry before making changes to the bill, which would allow payday loan companies to offer bigger loans with higher fees.

"Please let me know by 5pm today whether you have questions, comments, concerns, tweaks, etc.," analyst Meredith Hinshelwood wrote in January, after sending them a "updated version" of the bill. "If I do not hear back by that time, I will assume you are good with the proposed changes."

"These changes are fine with us," replied Jessica Rustin, the chief legal officer and chief compliance officer for Advance America.

"The changes are all good with me too," wrote Ian MacKechnie, the founder and CEO of Tampa-based payday lender Amscot.

The payday loan bill has passed the Senate and still has to get through the House this week, but its passage is all but guaranteed. It has received almost no opposition from Republicans or Democrats in the Legislature.

The emails were obtained in a records request by Karl Frisch, executive director of the Washington-based Allied Progress, a liberal group that has targeted the industry.

Included in the conversations were industry lobbyists and employees with the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, which regulates payday loans.

Notably absent from the email chains: opponents of the bill, including Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection.

"It's disappointing, no doubt about it," Vickers said. "Sadly, I don't think it's that unusual."

Although Vickers said she would have liked to have been involved in the bill's creation, she had praise for Hinshelwood, the analyst, whom she said spent lots of time with her going over the legislation. Vickers instead blamed the process of how legislation is crafted in Florida.

"These laws are created so rapidly," she said. "It's not a good process for creating well thought-out legislation."

Frisch said, "That's the problem."

"It is a problem when it is accepted as part of the process that payday lending companies, which contribute millions of dollars in Florida, are allowed to write legislation in Florida," he said.

The industry is a heavy donor to state politicians, giving at least $3 million since it was allowed to operate in Florida in the early 2000s. Amscot has given at least $1.3 million.

The emails do not explicitly show the industry writing the bill, and Vickers said the changes mentioned in the emails were relatively mundane, or were things requested by the Office of Financial Regulation.

But they give the impression of an uncomfortably close relationship between the people who craft laws and the people who benefit from them.

In one email, Hinshelwood makes clear that the industry was being kept in the loop as changes were made to the bill.

"The next committee stop is an appropriations subcommittee, and there is time to discuss language ahead of that next stop," she wrote.

In another, she asked OFR employees and industry insiders for approval before adding language to the bill.

"The highlighted portion is what I propose to add to the [amended bill]," she wrote. "I know that Jessica Rustin [of Advance America] is good with it. For the others on this email, please let me know by 10am tomorrow (Tuesday, January 16) if you are good with this proposal. If I do not hear back by that time, I will assume you are good with the proposed changes."

"Meredith, That makes sense, ok with me!" MacKechnie replied.

Analysts are appointed by and work for House and Senate leadership – in this case, Republicans. They help craft bills and write accompanying analyses that usually boil down complicated subjects into easy-to-read summaries. Lawmakers and journalists both rely on analyses to understand bills.

Hinshelwood, a lawyer and former OFR employee, declined to comment, referring comments to House spokesman Fred Piccolo. Piccolo did not offer a response.

MacKechnie said in a statement that lawmakers, not the industry, prompted the legislation.

"We were one of several parties contacted for feedback and were glad to participate in the opportunity to respond, to help legislators and staff understand the complexities of the massive federal mandate and craft effective solutions for Florida," he said. "We participated by working with the sponsor and technical staff to help develop an approach that would safeguard Floridians' access to short-term credit."

This year's payday loan bill has been praised by politicians and the industry, which fears a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule will make it next to impossible to do business in Florida.

One way around the rule, they've proposed in their bill, is to raise the maximum loan they can offer from $500 to $1,000. That would also mean they could charge more fees than they could by offering two $500 loans.

Opponents say the bill is unnecessary. The CFPB rule, which would require the industry to screen people who take out a high number of loans, doesn't take effect until August 2019, and it might never take effect under President Donald Trump's watch. The current head of the CFPB is already reconsidering the rule.

Vickers said the Office of Financial Regulation, not the analyst, should have been in charge of crafting the legislation.

But OFR spokeswoman Jamie Mongiovi said the agency was mostly on the sidelines as the bill was crafted.

Mongiovi, who is included in the email chains, said the payday loan companies went to their office in November wanting to meet about the legislation. Agency employees agreed to meet, since any changes to the law could affect how the agency regulated the industry.

But the bill was being led by lawmakers, not government, she said.

"It was an industry-proposed bill, it was an industry-run bill," Mongiovi said. "We weren't running the show here."

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