Tuesday, February 14, 2023

TitleMax office on Skidaway Road in Savannah. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

‘Like other financial companies’

The Current has spent the last year unraveling and revealing the scope and scale of the title-pawn industry in Georgia and the ways that this homegrown industry systematically exploits those in lower-income communities, entrapping them in crushing cycles of debt.

Thanks to the revelations that our stories have uncovered, a bipartisan group of Georgia lawmakers last week submitted a bill to reform how the industry operates. If passed, the legislation would bring title pawn companies under the oversight and regulation of the state’s Department of Banking and Finance and end the loophole that allows those businesses to charge triple-digit annual interest rates to customers — rates that are illegal for any other financial service.

The lead sponsor of the House Bill 352, Rep. Josh Bonner, a Republican from Peachtree City, told The Current’s editor in chief, Margaret Coker, that he sees the current situation, in which title pawn lenders obscure the true cost of their products, as “predatory.” He wants Georgia law to hew closer to what other states have done to protect consumers from this type of subprime lending.

The day he filed the bill, Rep. Bonner, who also chairs the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee in the state House, says he got his first call from the top lobbyist from Savannah-based TitleMax, the nation’s largest title lender. The lobbyist asked for a meeting. Still, he’s hopeful that his bill will pass a full floor vote and ultimately prevail to become Georgia law — unlike previous attempts to change state law to even the regulatory playing field.

“Getting sponsors to sign up for the bill was easy. We have several Republicans and Democrats who are behind this. We aren’t trying to do anything drastic. We just want to have them work the same way other financial companies do. Have common sense oversight and give consumers more protection and support,” Rep. Bonner said.

Read more of The Current’s investigative series about how title pawn companies deepen debt traps for Savannahians and Coastal Georgians here.

More than a dozen officials participated in the ceremonial groundbreaking of Hyundai Motor Group’s planned electric vehicle plant in Bryan County. Among them were (from left) South Korea ambassador to the U.S. Taeyong Cho, Hyundai chairman Euisun Chung, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, and U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Credit: Benjamin Payne/GPB News

‘Compliance measures’

The Savannah Joint Development Authority last month announced the hiring of Maria Whitfield to help find 8,000-plus workers to operate the Hyundai EV battery plant.

The sprawling enterprise, into which Hyundai has promised to invest $5.5 billion, is already raising concerns of workers migrating from already existing companies in Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham, and Effingham counties.

Now add another challenge: Hyundai Motor Co. disclosed last week that it is in talks with the U.S. Department of Labor to resolve concerns about child workers in its U.S. supply chain.

The company is taking corrective actions after a Reuters ­­investigation found children as young as 12 working in hazard-laden Alabama factories linked to the automotive giant.

The talks with the U.S. labor regulator have focused on “compliance measures across our supply chain,” company spokesman Michael Stewart said in a statement. He also detailed several new measures Hyundai is implementing to “ensure non-compliance never happens again.”

Ron Stephens
Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens speaking at a 2022 candidate forum in Richmond Hill. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA

Pushing boulders

When it comes to increasing taxes on a pack of cigarettes or legalizing gambling in Georgia, any longtime observer of the goings-on under the Gold Dome could be forgiven for mistaking any lawmaker advocating such measures for Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology who was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down every time he neared the top.

Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), it seems, is ready to risk the comparison. He has introduced legislation calling for a $0.20 increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes, to $0.57. Another Stephens-sponsored bill would raise the tax on vaping products 15%, from 7%.

Currently, Georgia has the second-lowest tax on cigarettes in the U.S. Only Missouri has a lower tax on a pack of cigarettes. The average national tax rate on a pack of cigarettes is $1.91 per pack.

Time after time, efforts to raise cigarette taxes have died at the hands of lobbyists for the tobacco and convenience store industries, as well as lawmakers reflexively opposed to any form of taxation. Hoping to rebrand the issue, Stephens is calling the proposed tax increase a “user fee.”

It’s absurd that we’re leaving that kind of money on the on the table, year after year after year,” says a Capitol insider who described himself as a longtime confidant of Stephens. “You’re talking billions.”

There’s another boulder for Stephens, too: gambling.

Lawyer and former Georgia congressman John Barrow recently described as “baloney” a recent op-ed by former Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton — and Metro Atlanta Chamber retainer — arguing that legalizing sports gambling doesn’t require a constitutional amendment just a vote of the legislature.  

Whatever the legislative and constitutional hurdles, Stephens believes that legalizing sports betting, which has the support of most Georgians, is “good economic development policy,” providing a new revenue stream of tens of millions of dollars annually to spend on the things the state needs, the Capitol insider says.

Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer says he’ll step down this year.


  • Embattled Georgia GOP chair won’t run for another term” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 10, 2023) “Shafer announced his plans amid a brewing revolt from activists. . . . Shafer alienated many of the state’s most powerful Republicans for picking the pro-Trump losing side in party primaries. Among them is Gov. Brian Kemp, the state’s most popular Republican, who has used his leadership committee to circumvent Shafer.”
  • A judge blocks the release of most of a grand jury report in Georgia election probe” (GPB, Feb. 13, 2023) The final recommendations of a special grand jury investigating attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election will largely be kept under wraps, a judge has ruled.
  • Attorneys general from 23 GOP-led states back suit seeking to block abortion pill” (Georgia Recorder, Feb. 11, 2023) “Attorneys general representing nearly two dozen Republican states [including Georgia] are backing a lawsuit that would remove the abortion pill from throughout the United States after more than two decades, eliminating the option even in states where abortion access remains legal.”
  • Another killing by police prompts questions” (Op-Ed, Terry Dickson, Brunswick News, Feb. 13, 2023) “Here we go again. Another Black man, Tyre Nichols, killed by police, this time in Memphis, this time in a beating by five Black officers, this time — actually time and time again — when the crime didn’t justify the reaction. Atlanta police shot a grandma years ago after she fired at whomever was breaking into her house. It was police making a drug bust at the wrong house. There was the knee on George Floyd’s neck. I could go on, but what’s the point. Everyone with a TV or a newspaper subscription knows about them all.”
  • “‘Deadly brew’: Amid soaring crime, Memphis cops lowered bar” (Associated Press, Feb. 7,, 2023) “Former Memphis police recruiters told The Associated Press of a growing desperation to fill hundreds of slots in recent years that drove the department to increase incentives and lower its standards. . . . The department offered new recruits $15,000 signing bonuses and $10,000 relocation allowances while phasing out requirements to have either college credits, military service or previous police work. All that’s now required is two years’ work experience — any work experience.”
  • Chinese spy balloon has GOP saying no cuts to defense” (The Hill, Feb. 12, 2023) “A growing number of Senate Republicans are saying that President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should take defense spending cuts off the table in their negotiation over the debt ceiling.”
  • Thousands of Kids Are Missing? Where Did They Go?” (Associated Press, Feb. 9, 2023) “An analysis by The Associated Press, Stanford University’s Big Local News project and Stanford education professor Thomas Dee found an estimated 230,000 students in 21 states whose absences could not be accounted for. These students didn’t move out of state, and they didn’t sign up for private school or home-school, according to publicly available data. In short, they’re missing.”
  • Conservatives gloat as Congress starts off with little to show”(Politico, Feb. 13, 2023) “For Republicans who want to slow President Joe Biden’s agenda and court confrontation with Democrats, the beginning of the year has played out beautifully. The House and Senate have not passed any new laws, the speaker is jostling with Biden over the debt ceiling and the new Congress’ most significant collaboration was agreeing to meet for the State of the Union.”

Lawmakers: Don’t look for update to Georgia’s education funding formula

Legslators say real change will take time and won’t be done this session despite some bills to consider.

Attorneys general from 23 GOP-led states back suit seeking to block abortion pill

The abortion pill, mifepristone, is legal at the federal level, though several GOP states have laws in place that restrict abortion to less than 10 weeks, setting up a dispute between state law and the federal government’s jurisdiction to approve pharmaceuticals.

Some towns get funding boost from Census corrections

Getting the numbers correct means more funding, better estimates for housing and schools, as well as other city services.

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Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...