A BILL PASSED Wednesday in the state House and sent to the Senate shows just how warped the priorities of some of our lawmakers are: An amendment to the bill would prohibit payday lenders from locating too close to a horse-race track. Apparently, the bill's sponsor, Chris Ross, wants to protect the customers of one of the state's favorite-son industries — the industry that was the very reason for Harrisburg to legalize gambling — from the damaging effects of high-interest-rate predatory loans. Such lenders would also not be allowed in slots parlors.

So if you're partaking of state-sanctioned gambling, you're in good shape. The rest of us, not so much. By removing a 24 percent interest-rate cap on loans, Ross' bill would allow payday lenders into the state to prey on primarily low-income consumers who need a short-term loan, with outrageous interest rates that can exceed 400 percent annually. In case anyone thought otherwise, the financial meltdown of 2008, caused by strings of bad mortgage loans and questionable lending practices, has not halted predators or the lawmakers who love them.

Ross argues that the bill is intended to provide "protections" for consumers, because if the state can't license these lenders, consumers turn to the unregulated Internet for these short-term loans that can suck them into endless cycles of borrowing at high rates. But such an argument is a sham, since two years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that out-of-state lenders had to follow the state's banking regulations, which curtailed much of their activity here.

Rep. Dwight Evans, who was absent for this vote, used a similar illogical argument in 2008 when he championed the cause of for-profit credit counselors, who also prey on those in financial difficulties, by letting them practice here.

Ross also argues that the bill would provide more protections than other states that allow such practices; but no state has legalized these lenders for seven years, and indeed, many have shut them down. It would be better if Pennsylvania followed the example of 17 states that don't allow them.

Payday lenders are so called because they provide short-term loans to consumers who don't have access or the income necessary for conventional loans; lenders usually have access to borrowers' bank accounts. When the fees and high interest rates make it difficult for borrowers to pay back the loan, they are encouraged to take out another loan. The average payday-lending customer is in debt to these lenders for 200 days out of the year.

For a while, military families were particularly vulnerable, and the Defense Department said that in such loans, "the debt trap is the norm, not the exception." In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a bill that capped interest rates payday lenders could charge military families.

Why Harrisburg is enabling these predators is a mystery; Ross himself, in an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot News, called payday loans dangerous and uncontrolled. The only true way to protect people against these predators is to keep them from practicing here. A small bright spot: Apparently, two dozen of the original sponsors of the bill changed their minds when they looked more closely into the terms. Gov. Corbett should do the same if this terrible bill reaches his desk.  n