SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The California Assembly voted Thursday to cap the interest lenders may charge on loans that can carry rates spiraling into the triple digits.
Backed by civil rights groups, religious organizations and some trade associations, the proposed law would cap annual rates at around 38% for loans between $2,500 and $10,000.
The bill comes as legislators across the country seek to reign in a storefront lending industry critics accuse of preying on low-income consumers in need of cash and trapping them under mounds of debt for years.
But even as the bill advanced, some California lawmakers expressed concern that it will limit choices for consumers with bad credit or little access to banks and other financial products. And the lending industry, which wields significant influence in legislatures as well as in Washington, has launched an advertising campaign in California attacking the bill as it heads to the state Senate, where observers expect a tougher fight.
Proponents of capping interest rates point to an explosion in high-interest consumer loans around the state over the last decade.
The state already caps interest rates on consumer loans under $2,500 but not for amounts over that threshold. In 2009, 8,468 loans for amounts between $2,500 and $10,000 came with interest rates over 100%, according to data from state regulators. Lenders now issue more than 350,000 loans each year with interest rates in the triple digits. A legislative analysis said at least one out of three borrowers is unable to pay their loans.
But proposals to cap interest rates in recent years have faltered at California's Legislature. Several lawmakers still expressed concern about the latest proposal, suggesting it could drive lenders out of the market, pushing consumers with low incomes toward unregulated lenders or cutting off their easy access to capital.
"Without these alternative financial service providers, those folks would have nowhere else to go," said Democratic Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove of Los Angeles.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon dismissed arguments the bill would ultimately harm low-income residents.
"Those are merely talking points of an industry that has repeatedly lied to members of this chamber," he said.
Casting the bill as a moral issue, the Democrat said the legislation can be considered as important as any other lawmakers will vote on this year in the country's most populous state.
The bill ended up passing with bipartisan support as one Republican legislator cited religious prohibitions on usury.
"I'm a free-market capitalist and I'm unashamed of it but we need to stand up and protect people who are being preyed upon," said Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo.
The support of the financial industry this year, too, may also signal that the sector foresees a reckoning in the state or at least further political uncertainty if lawmakers do not approve limits for loans between $2,500 and $10,000.
The California Supreme Court cast a legal question mark last year over the lending industry's practices, deciding in one class action lawsuit that some interest rates can be so high as to be deemed unconscionable under financial laws.
Democratic Assemblywoman Monique Limon of Santa Barbara, the bill's author, also suggested that an interest rate cap could end up on the ballot if the Legislature does not act.
If passed, California would join 38 states and the District of Columbia in capping interest rates for these types of loans, according to a legislative analysis. The level proposed in California would be on the higher end.
Observers expect a bigger political fight when the bill heads to the state Senate, however.
Opponents of the bill have launched an advertising campaign aimed at stopping it.
The trade group Online Lenders Alliance has bought ads on Sacramento television stations, according to Federal Communication Commission filings.
A group calling itself Don't Lock Me Out California has also bought online ads attacking the bill.