- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

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Oct. 3

The Savannah Morning News on title loan reform in the state:

People of limited means and desperate need sometimes are easy prey for companies that take advantage of their helplessness by offering so-called auto title loans. These companies force borrowers to pay unconscionably high interest rates and risk the loss of their cars when they are late paying. And that’s when it’s done legally, especially in a state like Georgia whose lawmakers refuse to enact reforms.

So, imagine how abusive a company in Georgia must be before federal regulators call its practices “unacceptable and illegal.” That’s what happened in the case of Savannah-based TMX Finance LLC, the parent of TitleMax, one of the nation’s largest title lenders.

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau slapped a $9 million penalty on TMX on Sept. 26 for hiding the true cost of renewing its loans (up to 300 percent!), showing up at borrowers’ homes and jobs to collect, thus exposing the fact of their debts to bosses, families and friends.

And yet, in the wake of the whopping fine, the president of TMX Finance Family of Companies made it sound as if TMX deserves a medal for generosity toward the needy.

“Many of our customers have nowhere to else to turn when they suffer from short-term financial setbacks,” Otto Bielss said in a statement. “We are committed to remaining a reliable source of credit for them when the need arises.”

While the title-loan industry is a high-risk business, and it does provide a service that other lenders won’t provide, as many borrowers are poor credit risks, the business practices of some title-loan companies are designed to keep its customers mired in debt and poverty.

Many people would be more favorably impressed with TMX’s concern if its interest rates fell somewhere within the realm of reason so that people wouldn’t lose their cars, which may be their only asset and their only way to get to work to earn money and pay off their debts. But that’s not even what got them fined by the feds. It was for harassing borrowers at work and at home, and neglecting to inform them that they could wind up owing three times the sum they borrowed.

And while TMX doesn’t exactly deny the conduct, it doesn’t admit it, either. And it says those “field visits” to collect debts have been against company policy since last year. The consumer agency’s investigation dates from 2011.

As for the $9 million payment, TMX says it agreed to that sum to settle the matter. Unfortunately, none of the sum will be returned as restitution.

TMX, was founded here in 1988, operates in 18 states through more than 1,300 storefronts making loans as TitleBucks and InstaLoan as well as TitleMax.

The Georgia General Assembly capped the interest rate at an effective annual rate of 300 percent for the first three months of the loan. Now it’s time to lower that outrageously high cap and force lenders to return to delinquent borrowers at least some of the proceeds from selling repossessed cars.

Needy Georgians shouldn’t be such easy prey for predatory lenders.

Online:

http://savannahnow.com

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Sept. 29

The Rome News-Tribune on a proposed school amendment:

Georgians entering November’s voting booths will be asked this question: Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance? Yes or no?

But if you think this question appears on the ballot as a well-intentioned effort to improve childhood education, please reconsider. This has nothing to do with the 1.7 million public school students in Georgia.

It has everything to do with money.

The amendment would allow an unaccountable education czar to seize a local school from the locally elected school board if that school scored 60 or below on Georgia’s College and Career Readiness Index for three consecutive years.

After commandeering the school, the education czar, appointed by and answerable only to the governor, has a number of options at his or her disposal, from closing the school and firing the principal and teachers to bringing in a for-profit charter school company to run it.

Rescuing students from failing schools, as this amendment purports to do, is an admirable action to take, but it bears mentioning Georgia’s governor already has the power to intervene in problem school systems.

Indeed, Gov. Nathan Deal, the daddy rabbit of this amendment, already exercised such power when he booted members of the DeKalb Board of Education from office.

Since the state already has the power to intervene and rescue little Johnny from an indolent school board, you may wonder why you’re being asked to amend Georgia’s constitution.

“Follow the money,” Deep Throat tells Robert Redford in the classic Watergate film “All the President’s Men.”

The motivating force for changing the state constitution, we believe, is to allow the state and others access to local education tax dollars.

Under Georgia’s constitution, only the duly elected school board is empowered to raise and spend tax money for education in a local school district, a power that has long been considered sacrosanct.

The authority to oversee a school district is vested in the local school board, giving it the power to do such things as set the millage rate, determine how taxes will be spent and hire a superintendent, all of which go out the window if the school is hijacked by an education czar.

The change would allow the state to create something called an Opportunity School District governed by the czar. Local tax dollars that go to educate students in schools seized by the czar would now be accessible to the state as well as for-profit charter school companies.

There is more than $15 billion a year on the table funding public education in Georgia and there are consultants all over the country licking their chops trying to figure out how to get their hands on that tax money.

Take note of this chain of events: Deal’s policy adviser, Erin Hames, helped design the Opportunity School District proposal. She has since left the governor’s office to become an education consultant. She was hired by Atlanta Public Schools to fireproof that system’s schools from being taken over by the state. That should tell Georgians all they need to know about what the future holds if the amendment is approved.

Nathan Deal has many accomplishments in which to take pride, from reforming Georgia’s criminal justice system to his many economic development efforts. We take him at his word that he wants to help students who are struggling in problem schools. But the abundance of evidence leads us to believe he’s been led astray by advisers who have less altruistic motives in advocating for this dangerous proposal.

If all of Georgia’s teachers turned out to vote against this amendment, it would undoubtedly fail. But the language on the ballot is written in such a breathtakingly deceitful manner that defeat remains a very real question mark. Which is why it is essential for everyone to learn what this amendment is really about: access to precious local school dollars.

The sharks are circling.

And if you’re wondering why lawmakers who know better continue to parrot the party line rather than denounce this proposal from the rooftops, it’s because they are afraid the governor will blast them into political oblivion. Similarly, school system superintendents also see the dangers lurking behind the governor’s amendment, but they, too, won’t speak against it out of fear of retribution - political, financial or otherwise.

And that’s a shame.

The last thing our local school boards need is some high-handed, unaccountable commissar seizing our schools, firing our teachers and contracting with opportunistic, for-profit charter companies anxious to gorge on taxpayer dollars.

Time and again, schools have taught us that local control is better. Decisions are better made close to home, not from the Capitol, the governor’s office or Washington, D.C.

If school board members are not doing their jobs, which is to ensure all students receive a quality education, let them be voted out of office, or let the governor retire them early as he did with the DeKalb school board.

Don’t let local dollars fall into the hands of parasitic state bureaucrats and a parade of special interests. Vote no on the Opportunity School District amendment.

Online:

http://www.northwestgeorgianews.com

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Oct. 2

The Gainesville Times on clearing a homeless camp:

Many in Gainesville are aware of the longtime homeless camp under the Queen City Parkway Bridge, a temporary haven of sorts for those who have nowhere else to go.

Over the years, local residents and nonprofits have provided food and other necessities for those who have settled there. A local ministry, Under the Bridge, formed to pool resources and address the need.

But in recent months, this erstwhile community has at times turned violent. The savage beating of one man under the bridge was chronicled in a Times story last Sunday. This incident was just one in a recent rash of such encounters creating a more tense atmosphere in the lean-to village. Many say the problems are caused not by people who live there but by those who visit in search of drugs and a “party,” stirring up trouble.

As a result, Gainesville Police plan a sweep of the camp Monday to move everyone out, as requested by the Department of Transportation, which owns the right of way. Police will put up signs and barricades and patrol the area to keep it clear.

Gainesville officials and police mostly have kept a hands-off approach to the camp, yet have no choice but to honor the DOT’s request. Everyone agrees this won’t solve the problem; it will only send those people somewhere else, likely under bridges in other areas of town.

City officials are looking to rally nonprofits, shelters and missions that serve homeless needs to deal with the overflow from the camp. The hard part comes in figuring out what to do after that for these forgotten souls. Local resources are available but often maxed out, and most shelters won’t accept those with drug or alcohol problems.

Allowing the camp to fester in filth and violence doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests. The site is choked by waste and garbage, and subject to flooding. Area businesses have complained of its denizens loitering nearby. While the city chose not to harass them, looking the other way hasn’t made life easier for anyone there.

Gainesville is a giving community, and many want to reach out to these hard-luck folks. But gathering the necessary resources is a steep mountain to climb.

That effort goes beyond just money. Substance abuse, mental illness and poverty frequently are the root cause of vagrancy, and connecting the homeless with services beyond a bed and a meal is a challenge. Local governments, law enforcement, churches and nonprofit shelters can only treat the symptoms rather than lift the homeless permanently out of despair with the help they need most: counseling, jobs, and public and affordable housing.

In the meantime, where can someone plagued by these disorders find a place to settle until they can get their lives together, even if they aren’t bothering anyone or creating a visible eyesore?

For now, Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss is looking to create a “crisis intervention team” among local agencies to meet the need. “If we don’t do it right, it will repeat itself down the road,” Moss said, even as she acknowledges many won’t seek or accept help, making a fix even harder.

Gainesville has an estimated 200 or more homeless individuals. The state Department of Community Affairs lists Hall as one of 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015, nearly all of those in the county seat.

Veterans account for 10 percent of homeless individuals in Georgia, according to the DCA’s estimate last year, up from 7 percent in 2013. Little is sadder than seeing those who served their country and who came back physically and psychologically broken remain unable to return to productive lives.

Some cities in Hall and elsewhere have dealt with this problem by banning homeless campsites. As always, it simply moves the problem from one town to another, and scattering them makes it harder for agencies to find them and provide help.

There are some options to consider. Georgia Works! is program model local officials recently have spent time reviewing. It’s a privately funded transitional housing and workforce training program for homeless men in Atlanta that is supported by business sponsorships.

A local program that helps families out of homelessness is Family Promise. The nonprofit, joined by area churches, works with three families at a time to connect them with services that can get them back on their feet.

A nationwide program with some success is Housing First, which puts those who are homeless, for whatever reason, into permanent housing without restrictions. The theory is that once someone has a decent shelter, he or she is more able to seek help for their various problems, followed by a job and a true escape from the homeless lifestyle.

These programs take a strong government commitment and considerable resources, but the results have been positive for communities who have adopted these models. And in the long run, easing more people into productive, independent lives will be less costly to the rest of us than funding short-term fixes.

Without such solutions, those pushed from under the bridge will end up somewhere. Clearing the camp may remove its residents and visitors for a while, but they will trickle back over time. Rest assured, they’ll will bring the same problems with them. Out of sight won’t put them out of mind.

Online:

http://www.gainesvilletimes.com

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