Following the money

The fight over predatory lending tells voters - which party is really in charge

In a time of uncertainty under the Gold Dome, many state lawmakers find themselves looking to their North Star: Big Money.

And no issue in the young legislative session illustrates this point better than the battle over the reform of Georgia's anti-predatory lending law — the Georgia Fair Lending Act. Lobbyists and heavyweight corporations have always held significant sway during the General Assembly, but with both parties struggling under completely alien circumstances and neither one in firm control, well-funded special interests have an opportunity to have more influence than ever. No one wants to wind up on the wrong side of the money.

So just forget parties. The predatory lending struggle sees Republican state Sen. Don Cheeks of Augusta leading a fight for consumers that includes Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, some members of the all-Democratic black caucus and a handful of other legislators. Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties — Rep. Johnny Floyd, D-Cordele, and Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, chief among them — are vying to see who can best represent the interests of the banks.

Cagle, Cheeks and Floyd all have their own bills to reform the Fair Lending Act. The big difference is that the banking industry wrote both Cagle's and Floyd's bills, Cheeks says, a fact no one contacted for this story disputes.

Floyd's House bill 142 unanimously passed the House last week, but Cheeks' legislation is tougher, and unlike the Floyd bill, specifically addresses the problem that prompted Standard & Poor's to stop rating mortgage-backed securities Feb. 1.

Thus far, Gov. Sonny Perdue hasn't publicly stated a preference for either bill, and spokeswoman Kimberly King says he's content with letting the Legislature work it out.

But that's difficult to believe given the fact that the governor's deputy executive counsel, Robert Highsmith, spent at least an hour in Cheeks' office Thursday morning discussing the issue. It doesn't take an hour to reiterate the governor's position that the Legislature work it out.

When asked if Perdue was solely interested in addressing S&P's concern with the Fair Lending Act, as has been publicly stated, Cheeks paused for a few moments, half-smiled and then flatly repeated the question in the form of an answer: "Gov. Perdue is solely interested in addressing S&P's concerns."

Since winning election in November, the governor has accepted at least $142,000 from the banking industry.

Still, as of Friday, Cheeks looked like he might have the upper hand. House bill 142 was headed to his committee, said Senate President Eric Johnson, and as of Thursday afternoon, Cheeks was not optimistic it would move quickly for a vote of the full Senate.

"It will be awful difficult, and it will take some time to fix it," he said of Floyd's bill.

Cheeks' legislation should get a Senate vote Wednesday, and Johnson expects it to pass easily. From there, it will move to the House, and you guessed it, Floyd's committee.

It all makes for a final outcome that's difficult to predict.

"When you figure it out, you tell me," Johnson jokes.

Only one thing is certain, no one in the Legislature is getting more attention — much of it unwanted — than Cheeks. He says he's been working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and he looks it. The Augusta lawmaker could even expect lobbying on Sunday, because three AARP volunteers are members of his Sunday school class, says AARP lobbyist Kathy Floyd, whose group supports the senator's bill.

So far, Cheeks seems to have stood his ground.

Floyd says the AARP plans to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers this week. The group sent out 20,000 postcards to members Saturday and is directing its membership to call their legislators to lobby for Cheeks' bill.