Originally created 04/10/00

Groups bolster new bill



ATLANTA -- Seventy-year-old Chuck Ware figures Georgians will be able to rest a little easier, as in eternal rest, because of legislation he helped push.

As a volunteer lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of AARP, Mr. Ware skipped a little of his own rest, the sleep kind, to keep an eye on lawmakers in a session that resulted in many bills hailed as good for consumers.

"I was there 40 days and 40 nights, and it takes that to watch these bills," the Jonesboro retiree said. "If they see you're not there, these legislators will do something sneaky."

Georgia officials hungry for jobs, especially in rural areas, hesitate to vote for pro-consumer bills that might discourage out-of-state businesses from building a factory here. But they passed several bills this year that business and consumer groups said were good compromises.

One of the bills AARP successfully supported strengthens regulations on cemeteries and funeral homes to require full refunds, disclosure of prices and to ensure adequate capital for long-term maintenance of burial sites.

"It's very good legislation," said Harvey Rosenzweig, a Savannah cemetery landscaper who also lobbied for the bill in his spare time. "It's a new day in Georgia in the death industry."

Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who conceived the bill, credits a small number of advocates such as Mr. Rosenzweig, Mr. Ware and other AARP members with the passage of much of the consumer-oriented legislation in the recent session.

"The sad fact is that, with a few exceptions, consumers are not represented with the halls full of lobbyists," said Ms. Cox, a former lawmaker. "By far the most people legislators hear from are paid lobbyists from the commercial interests."

One bill that could help even the balance would require state officeholders to file regular reports of the campaign contributions they get electronically straight into a database at the secretary of state's office. Then, with the click of a button, the public can see every politician who took money from a particular special-interest group.

Similar bills have languished in prior years. Ms. Cox credits Gov. Roy Barnes' support for this year's passage.

Passage also came this year for a bill regulating the fund-raising industry, another Cox initiative. But a bill tightening requirements on stock brokerage houses offering day-trading service stalled in the House after sailing through the Senate.

Intense lobbying played a role in the outcome of bills to liberalize where consumers can sue corporations, extend the deadline for lawsuits over faulty home construction and alter parameters for the payday loan industry.

In the case of the location of corporate lawsuits, the so-called venue-shopping bill had been the main target of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business until it was amended to limit its provisions. The NFIB continued to oppose it right up to the day last week when Mr. Barnes signed it into law.

Lobbyists persuaded senators to narrow the scope of the home-construction bill to limit it to synthetic stucco in the version that passed both chambers. Supporters see it as a missed opportunity to broaden consumer protections, but contractors said the bill's original wording would have driven up home prices.

Amendments were out of the question when lobbyists from competing industries and different consumer organizations pushed their own payday-loan bills to a standoff that wasn't resolved before the session ended. And each group claimed its bill would have protected consumers from loan sharks who advance cash until payday and then charge handsomely for the service.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the industrial-loan industry supported a bill authored by Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, that would have permitted class-action lawsuits against the lenders, arguing that the charges amount to illegal interest. AARP and the payday-loan industry wanted to stop that bill, and the industry had its own legislation that would have established regulations on the enterprise -- controls they say they had hoped would keep giant chains from setting up shop in Georgia.

"We defeated that (Cheeks) bill, and we defeated it big time," Mr. Ware said.

Mr. Cheeks blamed the payday-loan companies.

"They had lots and lots of money aimed at trying to be regulated. They hired lots of lobbyists," he said.

But the representative for the payday-lenders, James "Jet" Toney, sees it the other way.

"They don't want any competition in the marketplace, and they want to charge the huge fees they charge, in addition the high interest rates," he said of the industrial-loan companies.

Both sides predict the small-loan bills will resurface next year. Other items on the consumer-protection agenda, advocates say, are bills designed to license home builders and inspectors.

Overall, 2000 has been a good year for consumers, advocates say, although they admit that legislators' interest in keeping the state inviting for businesses that bring jobs will always mean Georgians' best protection remains their own savvy when making purchases.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.