A coalition of Wisconsin faith leaders, low-income advocates and consumer watchdogs is asking lawmakers on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee not to roll back regulations on the rent-to-own industry in the state budget.
Rent-to-own stores sell products like furniture, electronics and appliances. Customers pay for the items through weekly or monthly payments, but consumer advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the often exorbitant interest rates take advantage of financially inexperienced consumers.
Under a provision Gov. Scott Walker introduced in his last budget, the stores would no longer have been required to disclose their interest rates even at the time a contract was signed. A bipartisan vote in the Joint Finance Committee struck down that proposal, but advocates are concerned it might reemerge in this year's Joint Finance wrap-up motion.
Peter Skopec, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, said Monday he hasn't yet seen a proposal, but believes one is on its way.
Skopec said easing rent-to-own regulations would weaken consumer protections and make the financial marketplace "less transparent and less fair."
Ralph Middlecamp, director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said low-income consumers who shop at rent-to-own stores need transparency in order to protect themselves from out-of-control interest rates that can spiral into bad credit.
Middlecamp said shopping at rent-to-own stores might be the right choice for some people, and argued that all the coalition asks is they be subject to transparency requirements.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, has historically led the charge against weakening consumer protections at rent-to-own stores. The lawmaker sent the governor a letter in February urging him to keep non-fiscal policy changes related to the rent-to-own industry out of his budget. In the letter, Hintz noted that former governors Scott McCallum and Jim Doyle vetoed such provisions.
In the past, some of the most outspoken opponents of deregulating the rent-to-own industry were Republican lawmakers. In 2013, then-Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, called the practice "legal thievery." Then Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-Campbellsport — elected to Congress last fall — said the proposal would amount to "bleeding millions of dollars each year from our most vulnerable citizens."
Neither Ellis nor Grothman serves in the state Legislature now, but some Republican lawmakers who previously opposed the provision remain in office.
Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, has opposed rent-to-own deregulation in the past and in 2013 his chief of staff suggested the proposal was included as a favor to Ashley Furniture.
And Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, offered this the last time the provision was introduced: "I think that whole industry is preying on poor people, absolutely, and we need not facilitate that."
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said on Monday that changes to the industry's regulation are "being considered."