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Follow the Money: Payday lending companies gave legislators more than $170,000 ahead of 2019 session

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
The exterior of a MoneyTree branch

Bills to cap interest rates and track information in a database on high-interest, short-term “payday” lenders were either killed or staunchly opposed by a significant group of lobbyists and lawmakers during the 2019 Legislature, after the industry itself boosted its spending by nearly 40 percent from the previous election cycle.

In total, nine payday lending companies and executives gave $172,400 to 49 legislators during the 2018 election cycle, roughly $50,000 more than the industry gave during the 2016 cycle.

Spending was led by Dollar Loan Center and its founder, Chuck Brennan, which combined to give 35 lawmakers $48,000. Other major donors include Check City ($22,150), Advance America ($20,500), Titlemax ($20,000) and Curo ($19,000).

Unlike many other industries, which spread relatively small donations across a wide range of legislators, most payday lenders focused their contributions on anywhere from 13 to 17 specific legislators. The only outliers were Dollar Loan Center, which donated to 35 campaigns with an average contribution of $1,200, and Advance America, which donated to 24 with an average of $788.

Many of those specific legislators are one of 21 members — 13 in the Assembly and 8 in the Senate — of their respective chambers’ Commerce and Labor Committee, which handle payday lending regulations. Those 21 legislators received a median contribution of $2,750, with only one — Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton — receiving no campaign funds at all from payday lending companies.

Overall, industry contributions were relatively small; only one donation — a $10,000 contribution to former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson from Titlemax — hit the statutory donation maximum. Most contributions fell into the category of $3,000 or less.

But the industry has also obtained a substantial lobbying presence in Carson City, with businesses hiring more than two dozen lobbyists including former lawmakers William Horne, John Oceguera and Marcus Conklin to represent their interests.

Their influence helped kill Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank’s AB118, which would have placed a 36 percent annual percentage interest rate cap on an industry that often extends loans with interest rates higher than 500 or 600 percent. That bill died without receiving a hearing.

But despite staunch industry opposition, members of the Senate voted along party lines to advance SB201, a bill by Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela that would create a statewide payday loan database paid for by small surcharges on loans. Cancela was one among a handful of legislators to receive no contributions from payday lenders.

Most of the money — $124,400 — went to Democrats, who control nearly two-thirds of legislative seats. Republican lawmakers, in turn, raised $48,000. On average Democratic legislators received $1,256 per donation compared to $1,043 for Republicans.  

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson tied as the two largest recipients of payday lending money, with each taking in $23,500. They were followed by Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager ($11,500), Democratic Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro ($11,000), Republican Assembly Minority Leader Jim Wheeler ($11,000) and Republican Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer ($8,500).

Four of those six legislators comprise the legislative leadership, which traditionally receives substantially more money than rank-and-file lawmakers, while the remaining two — Yeager and Cannizzaro — were overall some of biggest fundraisers during the 2018 cycle. Cannizzaro has also since replaced Atkinson as Senate majority leader following his resignation last month.  

However, 14 legislators received no contributions from the industry, including 10 members of the 42-person Assembly and another four members of the Senate. That is substantially more than other industries, which traditionally contribute to all but a few legislators, usually those appointed after an election or senators who are not up for reelection in a given year.

Another two Democratic legislators, Sen. Marcia Washington and Assemblyman Greg Smith, were appointed after the session-long fundraising freeze and are therefore not included in this analysis.

Comparing each chamber, members of the Assembly received $88,000 to the Senate’s $84,000, though senators still received slightly more per average contribution, $1,221 to $1,159, respectively

As always, we’ve triple checked the math. But if anything looks off, feel free to contact us at [email protected].

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