Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
A storefront of a payday lender in Salt Lake Valley. Utah has 447 payday loan stores. State legislators are studying whether more regulation of the payday loan industry is needed.

Utah regulators want to require "payday lenders" to disclose more data that may help show whether they are fair firms offering emergency cash to those with poor credit or are essentially legalized loan sharks that trap the unwary into spiraling debt.

"Additional data collection is probably warranted so we can better understand the industry in Utah," Ed Leary, commissioner of the Utah Department of Financial Institutions, told the Legislature's Business and Labor Interim Committee on Wednesday.

Leary endorsed legislative goals proposed by a working group of legislators and regulators studying whether more regulation of the payday loan industry is needed.

The working group is proposing legislation to require payday lenders to report annually on data such as how many loans are really paid on time; how many loans are extended; what interest rates are charged; how many loans are made overall, and for what total amount; and in what zip codes or places are such loans being made.

The industry and its critics now often offer competing figures for such data. "We have had he-said-she-said kinds" of battles, said Rep. Lou Shurtliff, D-Ogden. "This will give us some data to find out what is really happening."

Payday loans are usually given for two weeks. A Deseret Morning News study in 2005 found that the median annual interest on them in Utah was 521 percent, or $20 for a two-week $100 loan. Critics contend the needy often cannot pay them off on time, and must take out more loans at the astronomic rates to cover them.

Both critics and supporters of the industry have concerns over the proposed legislation. Critics worry that data might not be made public by the state. Some legislators said requiring such data may be too costly and intrusive. An industry group said it has not yet had enough time to review proposals and take a stand.

Linda Hilton, an industry critic and coordinator of the Coalition of Religious Communities, praised current outlines for legislation — except for a part that says state regulators may not be required to share data with the public, even in aggregated, industrywide form.

"The whole point of gathering this information is so that the public can have the right to know what is going on with this industry," she said, urging that findings be made public.

Tracy Rawle, spokesman for the payday loan industry's Utah Consumer Lending Association, told the committee it wants more time to study the proposal before it takes any stand on it. The association also wants to figure what it may cost to collect such data.

The committee took no action Wednesday on whether to endorse the proposed outline of legislation. "We need to hear from the industry," said Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo, House chairman of the interim committee.

But some committee members voiced concerns.

"As far as I know, we've never asked any other industry to give this level of detail," said Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton, who has served on the board of directors of a bank. "I don't care what kind of industry it is, if you ask for this kind of information, you're going to find something to regulate. I ask the question: Is that what we really want to do?"

Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he has "problems with singling out a particular industry for a lot of scrutiny unless there are real problems there."

Rawle contended that the industry has few such problems.

"Of the million-plus transactions that we do a year, there are fewer than 30 complaints (to the state)," he told the committee. "There is a reason people like our services and do use them, and a reason they don't complain: They find a lot of value in what we provide."

But Laura Polacheck, advocacy director for AARP Utah, said few complaints arise because people feel it will do little good to complain that they have become trapped in debt for taking out legal loans. But she noted that the Pentagon recently convinced Congress to cap such loans at 36 percent annual interest for members of the military, because debt from payday loans was causing widespread problems with military families.

Utah payday lenders have quit doing business with members of the military, saying the 36 percent annual interest they are now allowed to charge them does not cover their costs of the loans.

State data shows Utah has 447 payday lenders, more than the combined number of 7-Elevens, McDonald's, Burger Kings and Wendy's in Utah.