Got a Credit Card? Read This

The way Governor Rose Mofford sees it, Arizona credit-card customers are going to get screwed anyway. So she and state lawmakers might just as well help the process along in the name of economic development.

Mofford supports legislation drafted by lawyers for Security Pacific Bank to "clarify" state banking laws on credit-card fees. The way the governor's office explains it: Arizona law needs some minor changes to "clearly delineate allowable charges" for credit cards, as two other states have already done.

Exactly what are some of those "allowable charges" in the proposed legislation? Well, there is one that would let the bank charge its credit cardholders a fee every time they use the card. Another would allow the bank to impose a minimum-interest charge each month, no matter how low the balance. Then there are fees for late payments, returned checks and instances where the cardholder has gone over the limit.

And if you don't like those charges and want to get rid of your card? The legislation would allow the bank to charge a fee for closing the charge account.

The governor doesn't see any problem with all that. "The [state] banking department evaluated the proposal and concluded it would have little impact on consumers," contends Mofford press aide Vada Manager.

The reasoning behind that logic, Manager explains, is that South Dakota and Delaware already allow such charges. And there's nothing that prohibits Security Pacific--or any other bank in Arizona, for that matter--from setting up a branch in either of those states to issue their credit cards and charge the fees to Arizona residents.

"Whether the service is in Delaware or Arizona, you still get charged," Manager says. "So you may as well have the jobs."

Those jobs are the carrot Security Pacific is using to entice Arizona lawmakers and the governor into changing state banking laws in the special legislative session later this month. Security Pacific--the multistate bank which bought Arizona Bank several years ago--has promised to move its credit-card operation from California to Arizona if the law is changed. That means 677 jobs, most of which will be full-time, with salaries ranging from $14,000 a year for nineteen embossing clerks to $48,000 for three customer-service managers. Another 148 people would be customer-service representatives earning $19,100 a year.

The lion's share of jobs will be workers handling collection services, with 262 employees each earning $22,700 annually. That is about $1,500 higher than the average salary for all people employed in Arizona. Mike Smith, a private lobbyist under contract to Security Pacific, says the bank wants to move because California has a cap on credit-card interest rates. Arizona has no such limit. Smith says it also costs Security Pacific more money to operate its credit-card center in California than it would in Arizona, where both labor and office-space costs are cheaper.

But Smith says that if Arizona won't change its laws to allow the new fees, the bank will take its business to another, more cooperative state. The likely candidate is Nevada.

"The issue [for banks] is to find the state where you can have the clearest and most permissive credit-card laws," says state banking chief Hank Rivoir. He, like the governor who appointed him, supports the bill.

Smith concedes that some of the proposed charges might be considered a little outrageous. For example, when asked about the per-transaction fee he responds, "That's insane to me."

Smith says that he doubts any bank--including his client--would impose all of those fees, saying they would scare off potential customers. But Smith's argument ignores the reality of how many banks get people to carry their credit cards.

Would-be cardholders fill out an application, either one they pick up in person or get in the mail. Sometimes the mail solicitations guarantee a certain line of credit or pre-approval.

It isn't until after the application is approved that the card--and the contract with all the rules and fees--comes in the mail. The bank works on the legal presumption that if you sign the card and start to use it, you've read and agreed to all the conditions. But even Rivoir says that he doubts many people actually read these contracts.

When pressed, Rivoir admits he's not overly enthusiastic about everything Security Pacific wants changed. Take that charge for each transaction, for example. "I have pointed that out to the governor's office," he says. And the fee for canceling the credit card? "You're right. It's not a very consumer-oriented kind of deal."

But none of that dampens Rivoir's endorsement of the bill. He echoes Mofford's reasoning that Arizona won't be the only one with such a law.

It's the same kind of "but-Johnny-does-it" logic a child uses to justify some risky venture. A wise parent probably would respond, "Well, if Johnny jumped off the roof, would you follow?"

It's not the same thing, Rivoir insists. "It's not a question of you voluntarily jumping off the roof. You're going to get all these rates and charges no matter what. The only question is if you're going to jump off your roof or Johnny's roof. My point is, it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what's in the bill."

MOFFORD BACKS DOWN Unwilling to go to war with the entire press corps, Rose Mofford has backed down from her demand for veto power over which reporters go on out-of-town trips with her.

Two weeks ago Mofford press aide Vada Manager announced that the governor wanted the last word on whom the press designates as a "pool reporter" to travel with her and file a report for all the media. Manager specifically said he thought it was "unlikely" the governor would allow either Larry Lopez of the Associated Press or me.

The policy was widely reported last week on Phoenix radio stations and in New Times, complete with angry responses from both the AP and this newspaper that Mofford was out-of-bounds in trying to control her media coverage.

The capitol reporters agreed and decided to name Lopez as the pool reporter for Mofford's out-of-town trip last week. They also agreed that, if Mofford balked, they'd continue naming Lopez as the pool reporter until she backed down. It was similar to the response they gave former Governor Evan Mecham when he declared that he wouldn't answer questions from Phoenix Gazette writer John Kolbe, whom he labeled a "nonperson." The press always allowed Kolbe to pose the first question at Mecham news conferences, and eventually Mecham answered.

But Mofford didn't balk and Lopez went along last Wednesday when the governor flew to Flagstaff to make a speech to the United Way of Northern Arizona. Whether it was worth the trip is debatable. Mofford told her audience she believes museums should return the bones of Native Americans if the tribes ask for them. The state-run Arizona Museum already has such a policy. And she said that she believes treatment for addicts should be a part of any antidrug effort, though she offered no specifics nor any source of funding.

And what of New Times? We're not interested in participating in the pool. Being a weekly news magazine, we have no need to cover the governor's daily comings-and-goings. But we objected to her stand on principle, lest this governor--or any other--believes the office permits managing the news by determining who can write it.

JUSTICE AIN'T CHEAP The Phoenix City Council hopes it can do with money what it couldn't do legislatively: Slow the number of appeals it hears from the Board of Adjustment, which rules on zoning-law variances.

Councilmembers will decide tonight if those disappointed by the board's decisions will have to pay $500 for a new hearing before the council. There currently is no charge for the appeal.

Homeowner activist Peter Martori isn't pleased. "I don't know what the logic is behind it," he says. "It seems to me to be an intentional deterrent to appeal. My sense is the council doesn't want to hear them."

He's right. The council really wants nothing to do with these appeals but was forced into it by pure political might.

Representative Jane Hull pushed through a new law last year allowing appeals to the council--previously, you could only appeal to Superior Court--in order to satisfy her constituents in north central Phoenix. They didn't want the expense of going to court to fight board approval for a NeuroCare Center for people suffering from head injuries. With Hull's new law in place, the district's councilmember, Howard Adams, led the successful fight at City Hall to deny NeuroCare the necessary permit.

After that vote, the council went back to the legislature, lobbying that it restore the old system of appealing to the courts. But state lawmakers didn't want to deal with the issue.

Now comes the move to charge for appeals. Dave Richert, the city's zoning officer, says appeals are time- consuming, justifying the fee. Besides, he says, the city is considering a waiver of the fee if it would constitute a hardship on a neighborhood.

That argument doesn't convince Councilmember Linda Nadolski that the fee makes sense. "If they're willing to waive it, then why have it--unless they're just trying to make some money.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Howard Fischer