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Rent-to-own push might finally pay off

By Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

For more than two decades, the rent-to-own industry, which leases such goods as televisions, appliances and furniture, has been fighting to free itself from certain provisions of Wisconsin law. Throughout, it has lubricated the gears of change with campaign donations and lobbying outlays.

“It’s something you have to do, what everybody does,” says Jeff Lebakken, president of the Wisconsin Rental Dealers Association, the main group pushing this change.

Lebakken, the owner of an Eau Claire-based rent-to-own company with 11 state stores, has given more than $33,000 to Wisconsin political candidates since 1999, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s searchable database.

Overall, an analysis shows $235,000 in donations of $100 or more over the past 20 years from individuals associated with the rent-to-own industry. Employees of Ashley Furniture, which leases goods to rent-to-own companies, led the pack at about $148,000, followed by Lebakken Rent to Own at $40,000 and a Texas company called Rent-A-Center at $39,000.

Top recipients include former Gov. Tommy Thompson, $42,700; former Gov. Jim Doyle, $22,500; and Gov. Scott Walker, $14,800.

But, as Lebakken notes, giving does not always translate into getting: “We put money with Gov. Doyle, and he vetoed our bill.”

Doyle, a Democrat, did this in 2006. The desired changes also were axed in 2001 by Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican who received at least $13,550 from affiliated donors.

In the 2003-04 and 2005-06 legislative sessions, culminating in the bill Doyle vetoed, Lebakken’s group spent a total of $600,000 on lobbying. These efforts cooled for several years but resumed in 2011-12, when the long-sought bill passed the Assembly but died in the Senate.

That brings us to the present, in which Walker has proposed to change the law in his budget. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie points to a one-sentence explanation in the governor’s budget summary: “Revise state statutes related to rental-purchase agreements to create more choices for Wisconsin consumers.” He declines to elaborate.

The rent-to-own industry seeks to get out from under the thumb of the Wisconsin Consumer Act. Of particular concern is the requirement that it disclose fees in terms of annual interest rate, which can run as high as 300 percent.

“The industry knows that consumers will balk at entering these agreements, if they know how much they interest they’ll be paying,” said Bob Andersen, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, a federally financed nonprofit law firm that opposes the change.

There is opposition even from within Walker’s Republican Party. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, recently called rent-to-own “a sleazy industry that preys on the poor by giving them contracts that no mathematically literate person would sign.”

Industry reps insist they’re helping people who can’t afford to buy goods or only need them temporarily. They say it’s not fair to apply the credit disclosure rule because their fees include such services as delivery and because the rental agreements can be terminated by the customer at will, by buying or returning products.

“We’re offering extraordinary flexibility and access,” said Rent-A-Center spokesman Xavier Dominicis. “We are not a credit transaction and that’s what the Wisconsin Consumer Act is designed to regulate.”

Dominicis said the changes will bring Wisconsin into line with 47 other states, which don’t treat rent-to-own as credit transactions, and allow the industry to expand its presence in the Badger State. While estimates vary, the national Association of Progressive Rental Organizations said there are 15 rent-to-own stores in Wisconsin; Colorado, with a similar population, has 95.

If the change goes through, said Lebakken, “I’d likely have more stores and also more business.” He believes the entry of other, competing rent-to-own businesses will benefit his own, through increased advertising and product awareness.

Rent-A-Center has no rent-to-own stores in Wisconsin. But if the law were changed, Dominicis said it would open “as many as the market would accommodate.”

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