Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, who pushed a major and controversial interest rate measure through the General Assembly last year, is now considering legislation that would go one step further, by allowing banks and retail companies to charge membership fees on credit cards.
John J. Corbley, Hughes' secretary of licensing and regulation, said his department is drafting legislation at the request of the governor's staff that would permit financial institutions to charge an annual membership fee of up to $20, provided that the charge could be used toward interest payments on a cardholder's account.
Under current Maryland law, banks and retail companies, such as the major department stores, cannot charge any fee for issuing a card. On revolving accounts, where bills are paid off gradually, the credit card issuers can charge interest.
Hughes' chief of staff, Ejner J. Johnson, said today that the fee proposal came up as part of a wider examination by the governor's office of problems in the interest rate legislation adopted last year. Johnson said that Hughes, who has been out of the office this week with the flu, will meet with credit card industry representatives and legislative leaders before deciding whether to push the credit card measure. Johnson also said the possibility of allowing membership fees without tying them to interest payments has not been ruled out.
Hughes has said in the past he supports the idea of credit card fees tied to interest payments but has never included it as part of his own legislative agenda. Last year the legislature, which has traditionally opposed banking industry efforts, supported a Hughes measure to raise interest rate ceilings from 18 to 24 percent--which applied to consumer loans and revolving credit card accounts--but killed an intensely lobbied amendment that would have allowed an $18-a-year credit card fee.
Banking legislation has been an increasing source of controversy in the General Assembly. Hughes and Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, both viewed as longstanding consumer advocates, came under fire last year when they supported efforts to increase the interest rate ceiling.
In the last two years, several major Maryland banks, including Maryland National and Equitable, have relocated their credit card operations across the border in Delaware, where banking laws are less stringent and where credit card fees are permissible. The move allowed the banks to charge membership fees to their Maryland credit card holders.
Hughes supports the fee as a way to stop other credit card operations from moving out of state and to encourage some of the financial institutions to return their operations to Maryland, according to Corbley and staff members.
They said allowing membership fees to be deducted from interest payments on overdue accounts would make Maryland credit card operations competitive with Delaware while protecting less affluent consumers, who are most likely to pay off credit card debts in installments.
That view has met much resistance from consumer advocacy groups and others who say the fees will simply add to enormous profits of the banking industry and be an added hardship to the consumer.
In the past, lobbyists for the banks and retail institutions said they do not favor allowing membership fees to be deducted from interest payments. However, in an effort to make it more palatable to the legislature, the banking deregulation bill being pushed this year by the banking industry allows membership fees to be used toward interest payments.
The financial institutions have said that fees would allow them to charge more competitive--and somewhat lower--interest rates. For example, instead of charging 20 percent interest on revolving accounts, they would be able to charge a lower percent--perhaps 19--and pick up the difference through the membership fees. Their concern is that consumers are more likely to be scared off by high interest rates than by membership fees.