The rent-to-own industry has been trying for years to win an exemption from state consumer protection laws and hasn't been bashful about lubricating the political machinery with big campaign donations.
The industry has not hit paydirt yet, but has enlisted some important new allies and appears to have succeeded in resuscitating a consumer protection exemption bill that was all but dead.
When the state Senate took up the industry's exemption bill last week, it was defeated 18-15. Not one, not two but three motions to reconsider the vote were then offered. On the third attempt, the bill was revived by a one-vote margin, 17-16.
That's where one of the rent-to-own industry's new allies comes in. Sources close to the legislative negotiations tell the Democracy Campaign that an Ashley Furniture executive called Senate leaders to urge them to bring the bill back for another vote. Ashley reportedly plans to place its merchandise in 300 new rental centers if the bill passes.
A top executive with the Eau Claire-area furniture maker made $1,000 contributions right after the 2004 election to the bill's lead sponsor, Eau Claire Republican Ron Brown, and another Eau Claire-area senator, Republican David Zien, who also signed on as a sponsor of the exemption legislation.
Ashley also has taken quite an interest in another of the exemption bill's newfound supporters, Governor Jim Doyle.
Doyle's apparent willingness to sign the bill if it passes the Legislature is curious because during his long stint as state attorney general he often locked horns with the rent-to-own industry. He once sued the Texas-based Rent-A-Center for failing to disclose credit provisions and engaging in deceptive advertising. The lawsuit resulted in an $8 million settlement that was used to pay restitution to customers scammed by the company and its subsidiary Colortyme Inc.
The Democracy Campaign's database of contributors to state campaigns shows that Rent-A-Center has made a couple of large donations to Doyle this year and has been feeding campaign money regularly to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee.
Another firm, Eau Claire-based Lebakken Rent-to-Own, also has given Doyle $3,000 since March 2004.
Neither Rent-A-Center nor Lebakken Rent-to-Own ever gave Doyle any money when he was attorney general. Ashley Furniture also never donated to Doyle until he ran for governor.