Lending Influence: Following The Money In State Government

7News follows the money from one industry to South Carolina lawmakers.

Joycelyn Artison was desperate.  She retired from nursing when her own health failed.

She has COPD, a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe without her medicine, which is delivered through an electric nebulizer.

In other words, Joycelyn can only breathe if the power stays on.

So, when money ran short in March, Joycelyn had nowhere to turn.

“I needed $189,” she said, “to pay my light bill.”

At 60 years old, she’d never taken a loan and never borrowed a dime. Even her car was paid for with cash from a tax return. This time, she got money from her very first “Title Loan”.

She borrowed the money with her car as collateral.

“I just couldn’t borrow it no other way,” she said.

No, she can’t find any way out of debt.

Even though she needed $189, she borrowed more.  She said Smart Choice Title Loans was eager to give her more and talked her into a larger loan.

The extra money certainly would matter.  In South Carolina, title lenders can use a legal loophole that allows unlimited interest as long as the loan is worth more than $600.

In fact, the businesses are often called “601s” because of their desire to lend at least that much.

“It was their idea to give me more money,” Joycelyn said.

Joycelyn got $640 at 400% interest.  According to her loan papers, it will cost $5,337.25 to pay off at $213.49 every month for more than two years.

It was a loan she could never repay.

Her budget?

She gets $813 a month from a disability check.

$400 of that money pays her rent.

She has $413 a month for electricity, water, food and medicine.

Now more than 25% of her total monthly income would go to the payments on her loan.

She later admitted, “I couldn’t have made that first payment.”

In 2015, the South Carolina Board of Financial Institutions paid for a study that found the interest rate Joycelyn paid is not at all unusual. The report found “loans above 400% are common”.

In many states, title loans are illegal.  Other states, like North Carolina put strict limits on the interest that can be charged.  In South Carolina they’re a billion dollar industry with hundreds of locations statewide.

7 News wanted to know why South Carolina is different.  So, we followed the money.

“Money does dictate who gets elected,” said former Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer.

Bauer is out of office and agreed to talk about the influence political donations have.

In the 7 News analysis of donor records, nobody collected more money from title lenders during Bauer’s eight years in statewide office than Bauer’s $66,000.

“I wish they’d give me more because I have a $223,000 debt,” Bauer said.

In South Carolina, title lenders aren’t the biggest contributor but the industry spreads campaign money across both political parties and to almost everyone in state government.

75 current state representatives have collected nearly $190,000 in title loan contributions over the last ten years.

36 of the state’s 46 senators got more than $140,000 in the same time.

Governor Nikki Haley got $28,000.

Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster has gotten $34,000 over his political career.

Attorney General Alan Wilson got $22,000.

State Treasurer Curtis Loftis got $14,000.

“Most folks I worked with never thought they owed them. It gave you an opportunity to hear from them and, quite frankly, if you didn’t support their cause they could cut off the stream of helping you anymore,” Bauer said.

Bauer said title lenders opened their wallets to him because he understood the business and, as a more libertarian conservative he felt government shouldn’t have to protect people from their own bad decisions, like borrowing money they couldn’t afford.

But even he was surprised by the terms of Joycelyn’s loan.

“When I see 400% to me that seems a bit much, somewhere there’s a line I don’t know what it is,” said Bauer after looking at the loan.

South Carolina lawmakers have been reluctant to draw that line on triple-digit interest rates.  When Senator Gerald Malloy introduced bills in 2008 and 2014 that would cap interest rates on title loans the bills died in committee.

Malloy hasn’t gotten any donations from title lenders but the majority of that committee, the Banking and Insurance Committee, has.  Democrats and Republicans on the committee, including the chairman, have collected a total of $40,000.

Malloy did not return several calls for comment about his bill.

“People do change their views when they’re in government. You are somewhat not as in the community as you once were so you do get the ear more of people that dictate policy and clearly big companies do dictate policy in chairs of government,” said Bauer

Smart Choice Title Loans said they were unable to comment on Joycelyn’s loan without her permission because of privacy laws but did say the company has not given political contributions in South Carolina.  The biggest donor, Title Max did not respond to several attempts for comment.

As for Joycelyn, after she missed several payments, her car was repossessed and sold at auction.  Smart Choice told her that if the sale of her car wasn’t enough to cover the balance of her debt, she’d still owe them money.

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