Diverse coalition opposes expansion of rent-to-own in Wisconsin

A diverse, bipartisan coalition gathered today to call for removal of a provision in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget that would not only allow the rent-to-own businesses to operate the in Wisconsin, but would grant them special exemptions and privileges.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), a longtime opponent of the rent-to-own industry, joined with Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and prominent clergy and consumer rights activists today in a rally at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce headquarters on Milwaukee’s south side.

In a press conference, Grothman blasted Walker, saying that the governor ran for office on a platform of reducing the amount of policy issues in state budgets.

“This time around, there are a variety of economic initiatives Gov. Walker could choose to support. He could have put policies in supporting the manufacturers or the farmers or the restaurant owners or whatever in the budget. Instead in this budget, we’re trying to open up the state of Wisconsin to the Rent-A-Center chain. There are a variety of chains, but the one I think they really want this badly is the Rent-A-Center chain out of Plano, Texas,” Grothman said.

Rent-a-Center takes advantage of people who do not understand math concepts well, Grothman said, by charging up to seven times more for a television, piece of furniture or other item than it would cost in a normal retail store, and adding exorbitant fees.

“I assume Gov. Walker does not know how predatory and just plain evil this chain is,” Grothman said. “I hope we can get Gov. Walker to change his mind. I assume that if this chain comes in here, they will be bleeding millions of dollars every year from our most vulnerable citizens…It’s just horrible that of all the things you can do in the Legislature, you would say we’re going to let these guys in the state of Wisconsin.”

Taylor said the rent-to-own provision is especially upsetting because it is buried in the budget.

“We need to shine a light on this issue because it’s hidden in the budget,” Taylor said. “To me, if Gov. Walker is so proud of this provision, he should put it in a freestanding bill,” where it will be subject to public hearings, Taylor added.

Grothman said he knows of “several” other GOP lawmakers who are privately opposed to the rent-to-own provision. He said it would take at least five Republicans to join Democrats in a Joint Finance Committee vote to remove the provision because Republicans have a 12-4 majority on the committee.

Taylor said afterward that she plans to address the issue with Walker next week. “We have until June,” she said of efforts to remove the rent-to-own provision.

Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop Jerome Listecki and Lutheran Bishop Jeff Barrow of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of ELCA also both spoke against the provision, saying that such practices are morally wrong.

Bruce Speight of the consumer advocacy group WISPRG noted that the budget provision is not designed just to allow rent-to-own businesses.

“They’re already operating in Wisconsin,” he said. “The rent-to-own industry wants special treatment. Carving out a special exception to predatory companies is not good for Wisconsin’s economy.”

Last month, a letter signed by WISPIRG, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Community Action Coalition for South Central WI, Inc., Wisconsin Association for Justice, the Consumer Law Litigation Clinic of the University of Wisconsin Law School, WISDOM, Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, Inc., Wisconsin Council of Churches, and Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups was sent to all Wisconsin state legislators and Walker.

For ongoing coverage, visit http://www.wispolitics.com/, a media partner of BizTimes.

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