The Maryland House of Delegates, embroiled in debate over controversial legislation that would allow higher ceilings on interest rates on consumer loans and credit cards, adjourned abruptly tonight, putting off until tomorrow a vote on the measure.
Although the bill has been the subject of intense debate in a House committee and in the State House corridors, tonight's two-hour session was the legislature's first full-scale debate on the proposal. About a dozen vigilant lobbyists representing the state's powerful banking industry and small loan companies, who have scrutinized every twist and turn of the interest-rate legislation, watched the debate from the House gallery.
The bill, endorsed by Gov. Harry Hughes and the banking and small loan company lobbies, would permit retail stores and lending institutions to raise interest rates on consumer loans and credit cards from 18 percent to 24 percent.
The lobbies for the lending institutions have intensified pressure to ease the interest ceilings and make available more credit for borrowers. They have argued that without interest-rate relief, small loan companies will go out of business, resulting in a dearth of credit for needy consumers.
But labor and consumer groups, the main forces opposing the measure, have charged that low-income borrowers will be hardest hit if interest rates go up. They also contend that lending institutions are gigantic profit-makers that do not need further financial advantages.
Some of the bill's critics argue that the measure is designed to exploit consumers who rely on credit cards, by imposing credit card fees and higher finance charges.
"This is a legislative jelly-roll," said Del. Steven Sklar (D-Baltimore), who led the opposition on the floor. "Wrapped up in the middle of the jelly roll is the jelly in this bill--the credit cards."
Sklar dramatized his points by showing extensive graphs and charts that he said detailed the profits made last year by Maryland's seven largest banks.
"If banks can do that well in a year of general recession, we have to look a second time at this legislation," Sklar said.
Del. Fred C. Rummage (D-Prince George's), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, nervously defended the bill amid laughter and hissing from the floor.
Although supporters expected earlier that the bill would be approved, a series of amendments and subsequent reversals by the committee last week appear to have weakened its prospects considerably. Some committee members, as well as the House leadership, were known to be disappointed with Rummage's handling of the bill.