Activists back away from ballot initiative legal fight - Word&Way

Activists back away from ballot initiative legal fight

JEFFERSON CITY — Facing a looming deadline, Missourians for Responsible Lending and Give Missourians a Raise dropped efforts on Sept. 4 to get two initiatives on the ballot in November. But organizers say the fight is far from over to bring economic dignity to the state's residents.

Missourians for Responsible Lending and several faith-based groups — including Communities Creating Opportunities in Kansas City, Missouri Faith Voices and Jefferson City Congregations Uniting — pushed a ballot initiative to cap the interest rates on short-term consumer loans, often dubbed payday advances or payday loans.

Give Missourians a Raise hoped to raise the minimum wage in Missouri to $8.25 per hour, up $1 from its current $7.25 per hour.

Both ended up in Cole County Circuit Court after Secretary of State Robin Carnahan declared more than 30,000 signatures in St. Louis invalid. Leaders with the not-for-profit organizations filed legal action to challenge Carnahan's ruling, citing validation problems in St. Louis in the past.

They ended the legal fight when they realized they had little chance of meeting the Sept. 21 deadline for getting the initiatives on the ballot. They blame "big money" from the payday advance industry.

According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity, formed by the payday loan industry as a political action committee, received more than $2 million through Missourians for Responsible Government from January through July this year. As a 501(c)4 not-for-profit corporation, Missourians for Responsible Government does not have to disclose names of contributors.

"The payday legal team was able to basically change the rules," noted Katie Jansen Larson, director of organizing for Missouri Faith Voices.

Payday industry attorneys picked at the ambiguities in the law, she said. "We couldn't address all of them by the deadline…. They were willing to destroy the petition initiative process."

Approximately 180,000 signatures from registered voters were gathered for the payday advance initiative, and about 175,000 people signed the minimum wage petition.

Missourians for Responsible Lending and its partner organizations plan to keep the payday lending issue before the public and to look for ways to promote economic dignity for state residents.

"We feel the process has disenfranchised a lot of people…. More than 350,000 people signed petitions and now they just don't matter," Larson said.

They also plan to find ways to fix the legal ambiguities so that the initiative process "remains a citizen's process, not a lawyer's process," she added. That effort may include working at the federal level.

Several groups pushing for both initiatives held simultaneous rallies in Jefferson City, Kansas City and St. Louis on Sept. 5 to protest and vow to keep fighting.

"When I signed these petitions, it was my intention, just like it was the intention of the 350,000 other Missourians who signed, to give Missouri voters a chance to decide on these issues of economic dignity," said Jim Hill, Missouri Faith Voices director and executive director of Churchnet, the ministry arm of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.

"I am beyond disappointed — I'm angry at the injustice of it. I intend to continue to work with people of faith across our state to cap the predatory interest rates of payday loans."