Virginia bankers and retailers descended on House Room 4 this morning to give strong and impassioned support to a bill that would raise by one-third -- from 18 to 24 percent -- the legal interest limit they can charge the state's credit-card customers.
Dozens of supporters packed the room, home of the House Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee, to the point that when they stood up in support of the proposal, House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss quipped, "I hear jingling."
Others stalked lawmakers in the halls to push the bill. "I had bankers stopping me all the way to the coffee shop," said Del. Alexander McMurtrie (D-Chesterfield), who chairs the subcommittee that must first approve the bill.
Consumer interests, meanwhile, had a lone spokesman on hand to oppose the measure, despite the fact that even the measure's sponsor acknowledged it could have political consequences because credit-card-carrying voters back home would likely disapprove of it.
"I talked to a lot of consumer groups," said R. R. Foutz, secretary-treasurer of the Virginia AFL-CIO. "They told me they weren't coming because they simply did not want to fight another losing battle."
Foutz and others contend consumers are almost always on the losing end in House Room 4, given what they see as the committee's pro-business leanings. Last year, the Corporations Committee quickly approved -- and the General Assembly passed -- at least a dozen probanking bills, including measures that effectively raised interest rates on home mortgages and installment loans.
In the last two weeks, the panel has scrapped several proconsumer bills, including one that would have forced banks to pay for their mistakes just as customers are charged for overdrafts.
Under this latest proposal, Virginia, whose existing credit card interest ceiling is higher than Maryland's and the District of Columbia's, would join South Carolina in having the nation's highest ceiling. (Seven other states have no legal interest ceiling.)
Lobbyists for the influential Virginia Retail Merchants and Bankers Associations pleaded significant financial losses in asking the committee for the bill. W. O. Pearce, the chief banking lobbyist and a fixture at committee meetings who is affectionately called "Winky" by the lawmakers, contended Virginia banks lost more than $2 million on their credit card operations last year.
Ray McAlister, a North Texas State University business professor imported by the Retail Merchants Association for the hearing, contended the net effect of the present ceiling was to force merchants to raise prices to cover their credit card losses. "Customers who pay cash, many of them low-income, are subsidizing the wealthier customers who buy on credit," he argued.
Only the AFL-CIO's Foutz contested the proponents' arguments that high interest rates had made the credit-card business unprofitable. He cited a federal report indicating banks had paid about 9.8 percent on the money they borrowed during the first six months of last year.Pearce said his statistics showed the banks had paid more than 11 percent.
"I don't care if it's 9 to 11," said Foutz, "I can't see how you can borrow money at those rates and lend it at 18 and not make money." He added that the proposal would "definitely hurt the average workingman."
Most of the 20 committee members, all of whom face reelection in November, were unwilling to reveal how they planned to vote. An exception was Del. Erwin (Shad) Solomon (D-Bath), a declared candidate for state attorney general, who said he would definitely oppose the bill.
One member in a particularly difficult political position is Solomon's likely Democratic opponent, Richmond Del. Gerald Baliles, who said he had not decided how to vote on the bill. Should Baliles support it, his stand is likely to become a major campaign issue.
Some committee members seemed releived that the bill was sent to McMurtrie's subcommittee, where many hope a compromise measure will emerge. But others suggested that the bill may be changed to eliminate the interest ceiling altogether -- as happened last year to the installment loan bill.
"Congratualtions, Alex," said lobbyist Pearce sardonically to McMutrie, acknowledging that the problem for the moment rests in the lawmaker's lap.