- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, Oct. 4, 2016

Old game, new twist

Back in 2008, then Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel launched a campaign to rid the state of payday lenders.

The storefront lending operations advanced cash on post-dated checks. The interest and fees charged on these cash advances - payable every two weeks - often added up to 400 percent a year or more, far in excess of the state’s constitutional cap on interest rates.

Critics said payday lending often trapped borrowers in a cycle they could never hope to escape, refinancing loans every two weeks because they could not afford to pay the principal. Sometime borrowers ended up paying much more in interest and fees than the amount of the loan.

Industry advocates say payday lenders provided an option to low-income individuals and families that traditional banks did not offer. Where else, they argued, could someone borrow a few hundred in a few minutes to pay for a car repair or prevent a utility from being shut off? They justified the high cost of such loans as necessary to make up for money lost to default.

The exit of payday lenders left and opportunity and it looks like a Texarkana businessman has come up with a way to fill it.

Cheney Pruett is the chief executive of CashMax, which has offices in North Little Rock and Hope. CashMax operates as a “credit service organization.” A CSO typically consolidates credit card debt for a fee and allows borrowers to pay off their debts on a fixed schedule.

CashMax has turned that idea on its head, acting more as a broker for lenders who charge within the state’s 17 percent interest-rate cap. But CashMax tacks on a hefty fee that, according to an article published Monday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, adds up to an effective annual interest rate of nearly 260 percent.

CashMax says it is operating within the law. And it most likely is_at least the letter of the law, but definitely not the spirit.

According to the Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas AG Leslie Rutledge’s office declined to comment on the matter. City attorneys from both Hope and North Little Rock say they have contacted the AG’s office about the company.

Both sides in the payday lending argument have a point. These companies do provide a needed service for low-income people who need cash for an unexpected emergency. The only other options are going to a pawnshop_but they require collateral and some folks may not own anything of real value_or tapping a bank’s “overdraft protection” service. But do that enough and the fees could top what you would shell out for a payday loan.

Still, high interest and fees do tend to trap folks on a limited income into a vicious cycle. Especially when they can get two or more loans from different payday lenders.

It’s time the state Legislature takes a good hard look at the state’s usury law and any loopholes, as well as the philosophy of small loans in Arkansas. There has to be a compromise that will allow lenders to make a reasonable profit and borrowers to get the cash they need on short notice.

___

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Oct. 1, 2016

Imagine all the people

Forgive us for a few moments of daydreaming. It’s easy to do as summer fades and the mornings grow cooler. Some days we can’t even get the newspaper to the front door without stopping on the porch to just breathe the morning in. And think to ourselves, what a wonderful world.

And how it could be even more wonderful. Imagine …

Imagine if instead of worrying about a school district, and how much money it makes, or how many school board members hold elective office, or how much patronage can be promised to those in good standing with the bureaucrats … instead all the people worried about the kids in that school district, and whether they are learning what it will take to be good citizens later on.

Imagine if our betters understood that if a school district has been failing its students for 60 years, as some claim, then something needs to change in that district. Maybe something drastic. Like a takeover. Because failing students for another 60 years, or 10 years, or one month shouldn’t be acceptable.

Imagine if all those black kids on waiting lists to get into charter schools in Little Rock - thousands and thousands of them at last count - were given the opportunity to go to a school that provided a better opportunity for college, scholarships, a future. Imagine if instead of just talking about helping black kids in Little Rock, all the people actually helped black kids in Little Rock. By expanding, not denying, schools that work.

Imagine if our betters actually listened to black parents, who sign up their children for these charter schools, and all too many lose out on the blind lotteries that select the kids. Imagine the heartbreak when a black mother gets the news that her child has to go to the failing traditional school down the street because all those who know so much better than her have decided what’s best. No matter what she thinks she sees and hears - and knows.

Imagine if all those educated wannabe bureaucrats understood that charter schools that are actually failing can be shut down - and when’s the last time that you heard of a traditional public school being shut down for “only” failing its students?

Imagine if, instead of spending money on lawsuits and lawyers, those legal fees and court costs were magically turned into chemistry labs and new math books and computer equipment. Or, better yet (as somebody mentioned the other day) if all the lawyers who claim to really care about the kids worked pro bono on these kinds of lawsuits.

But all of that’s just a dream.

It shouldn’t be.

___

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Oct. 2, 2016

Out of the abyss

A lot of residents and visitors in Northwest Arkansas no doubt see Cave Springs as just a town to get through on the way to or back from far-flung destinations, the kinds one can reach by flying out of the nearby Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.

For somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people, Cave Springs is home. It’s where they’ve invested their lives and their money for housing. The last thing most any of them want is for their small town to fall into disarray, but in recent months, that’s exactly what they’ve had to witness in their city government.

We don’t seek to diss the town. There’s plenty of that to go around from within its own borders: disorganization, distrust, disagreement, disinformation, discontent, disunity and dissatisfaction.

And from the outside looking in, there’s just disappointment. The people of Cave Springs deserve good government, not personality conflicts and accusations.

Cave Springs Alderwoman Mary Ann Winters last week questioned the city’s financial stability and said she was concerned hundreds of thousands of dollars were missing from two city accounts.

Mayor Travis Lee said he’s been trying for months to review the city’s financial condition.

“We don’t know if money is missing or we’re over budget because the accounts have not been reconciled,” he said. “I have personally caught mistakes about where money is being put.”

Sounds dire, doesn’t it? But that’s not the half of it. Recent city meetings have been filled with acrimony. Contentious discussions in City Council meetings. Boos from the public. Threats to have people removed.

This is the kind of mess it’s so easy for small-town governments to sink into when the town’s leadership has lost its focus and failed to build bonds of trust within the community. The key players in Cave Springs are Lee, recorder/treasurer Kimberly Hutcheson and the City Council - Marc Williams, Winters, Joan White, Brett Moore, Larry Fletcher and Jay Finch..

“I’m embarrassed for our city,” one resident said at the latest City Council meeting. “I’m embarrassed for you guys.”

City leaders thankfully plan an audit, at the suggestion of a lawyer from the Arkansas Municipal League. Until that’s complete, all the arguing and accusations in the world won’t get Cave Springs to a better place. That audit needs to happen as soon as possible, but also as thoroughly as possible.

Even when those numbers are ready and evaluation of Cave Springs’ accounting systems and procedures is done, the people of Cave Springs will not have changed. Lee will still be there, as will Hutcheson. There’s an election coming for some members of the City Council, the effect of which can’t be underestimated. Regardless of how that turns out, Cave Springs is too small for anyone to believe the challenges city government faces isn’t their concern.

The chaos demonstrated lately is a threat to the day-to-day functions of city government.

Benton County and its communities are growing by leaps and bounds, but that’s not a given. Dysfunction in city government can, if it lingers, become a distraction that harms the perception others have. Why would any sales tax-generating business want to move into Cave Springs if it’s so chaotic?

Naturally, a heavy burden of responsibility falls to Lee, the man who asked for the public’s vote to be mayor. That puts him in a unique position to lead, to find ways to make city government function better and to set an example of developing stronger relationships of trust within the community. In every town, if the mayor isn’t taking the lead on such matters, there’s little hope city government will get back on track.

This mess involves every elected official, all of whom bear some responsibility for the failures in Cave Springs’ government, or at least the failure so far to get a handle on them. But mayors are not just titular figures in Arkansas’ municipal structure. They are the men and women elected to be a community’s biggest cheerleader, its most able (we hope) administrator and the person who can build bridges over even long-existing gaps in city relations.

There’s much work to do, Cave Springs.

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