While most states in the country are wrestling with the prospect of nationwide branching, bankers in Georgia are still trying to get over the county line.
The Georgia legislature is sweating over a controversial bill that would dismantle some of the most restrictive intrastate branching laws in the country. Georgia banks still can't branch into other counties unless they acquire a whole bank there.
Only five other states prohibit statewide branching, but most of them are not as restrictive as Georgia.
The bill, which barely squeaked by the state Senate two weeks ago and goes to the House this week, has divided not only bankers in the state but also individual boards of directors.
"What we've got down here is something like the 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,' " said Edward D. "Jack" Dunn, who has been the state's bank commissioner for the past 24 years. "The level of emotion is high, but it's always that way when you start talking about branching."
The bill would allow banks to branch into adjoining counties by either acquiring a branch of another bank there or by constructing a new branch.
The stakes are high. At least 15 state banks are threatening to convert to federal thrifts if the bill fails, Mr. Dunn said. They would do this because a federal thrift charter allows branching anywhere. A handful of Georgia banks have already taken this route in recent years.
In order to hammer the bill through the Senate, its supporters compromised on the implementation date, postponing it two years to July 1, 1997. They also agreed to drop one of the five counties surrounding Atlanta that together would make up a "super-county," allowing unrestricted branching between them.
The battle lines are not clearly drawn. Big banks generally support the bill, but so do some community banks that want to expand. The Georgia Bankers Association, whose members include banks of all sizes, is neutral on the issue. The Community Bankers Association of Georgia opposes the bill.
The opposition believes it's a question of turf. Small banks want to preserve their franchise value and their markets, which they believe would be eroded if other banks moved in. They also don't want the out-of-county banks to get a relatively free ride into their counties by not having to buy a whole bank.
"The way I look at it is that people want to get across the line to get to a good hunting hole," said Boone A. Knox, chairman of $535 million- asset Allied Bankshares in Thomson. "The only way to do that is to buy a bank. We have done this. Now, I don't mind competition, but I just want others to pay the initiation fee, too."
Bigger banks that favor the bill see it as a matter of customer convenience. Customers should have access to their bank.
The big institutions would also like to have the option to expand to other counties, without being limited to just those with banks for sale.
"I think that those who are against it are looking at the interests of their institution, not the consumer," said Matthew S. Lewis, spokesman for $6.9 billion-asset Bank South Corp. in Atlanta. "But we think it's in the best interest of the institution to do what the consumer wants."