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Bill on Check-Cashing Stores Advances in Pr. George's

A proposed bill in Prince George's County that would impose restrictions on check-cashing businesses advanced out of committee today -- over the strong objection of industry lobbyists -- meaning the full County Council could vote on the measure by the end of the year.

The bill, proposed by council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), would require new check-cashing stores to get a special exception from the county -- which involves a lengthy approval process and a public hearing -- and to adhere to several new restrictions, including mandatory security cameras, lighting, guards and limited hours. Existing stores would be exempt unless they changed owners.

The bill is an effort to combat a "saturation" of the establishments, especially in Campos's district, and to respond to complaints by police and residents that they attract crime and bring down the image of their neighborhoods, officials said. Industry spokespeople say that there is no proof the stores attract crime and that the bill unfairly singles out their businesses.

Since its original introduction, Campos's bill has changed somewhat, and he introduced further amendments today. Hearing the concerns of storeowners, two of whom addressed the committee, Campos on Wednesday proposed amending the bill to lengthen the allowable hours of operation, remove the security guard requirement, remove language banning ATMs from the stores and change language governing how new ownership of a check-cashing store is handled.

Though today is his birthday, he only won two out of four: The committee approved his ATM and hours of operation amendments. The amended bill was approved by the committee unanimously and now can move on to the full nine-member County Council for a vote.

The bill was also changed to adhere to the state's definition of a check-cashing store, which excludes stores that cap their fees at 1.5 percent of cashed checks, and whose businesses only have check cashing as an "incidental" portion of their operation -- a clause storeowners say is too vague.

In a seeming concession to the storeowners, Campos said Wednesday that businesses may not be the cause of the crime, but that they have a bad image nonetheless.

"Unfortunately, check-cashing businesses are seen in a bad light in many parts of this country. ... Even though it's not necessarily your fault there may be crime, check-cashing businesses [are] ... many times in areas that probably need more enhancing."

Industry representatives also argued that they serve a portion of the population that can't use banks for various reasons. Experts say check-cashing patrons may be undocumented residents, unable to wait days for a check to clear to pay bills, or unable to open bank accounts because of a history of bouncing checks.

Stay tuned to Maryland Politics to find out whether the bill sinks or swims when it appears before the full council.

By Jonathan Mummolo  |  October 7, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Jonathan Mummolo , Prince George's County  
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