Undeterred by setbacks in state and federal court, opponents of automated teller machine surcharging are taking their increasingly political fight to several new fronts.
Their campaigns so far - some at the state level, some local, and others barely at the petition stage -have yet to produce a ban that withstood court challenge. Even so, they show the impact that high-profile campaigns in San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif., have had in rousing not just consumer activists, but politicians hoping to use the fees as an election issue.
Politicians in a number of states including Illinois, Minnesota, New York, and Connecticut have proposed bills to outlaw ATM surcharges.
In Wisconsin, site of the latest skirmish, anti-fee forces were dealt another blow Tuesday when state senators voted 17-16 to reject a surcharge-ban bill introduced in January. A second bill introduced in the Wisconsin state assembly is languishing in committee.
Other hot spots include Chicago and Woodbridge, N.J., where officials are expected to approve an ordinance as soon as next week.
Oregon's student-run unit of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a Washington, D.C., watchdog organization that spearheaded the California efforts, has begun drives in Portland, Salem, and Eugene this week. And next month the New York City Council is expected to begin hearings on a bill sponsored by council leaders.
"The move to curb ATM fees is blossoming all over, slowly but surely," said Jon Golinger, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in California and a leader in the San Francisco and Santa Monica battles. Recent grass-roots efforts are more substantive than the "broad but shallow" attempt to squash the fees when they first became prevalent in 1996, he said.
Recent court setbacks apparently have not dissuaded surcharge foes. In California, Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and the California Bankers Association sued San Francisco and Santa Monica, arguing that the cities lack jurisdiction over nationally chartered banks. While the litigation is pending, a federal judge showed early support for the banking industry, ruling that the two ordinances were likely pre-empted by federal law. Both cities are prohibited from enforcing the bans until the case is decided, but have appealed that injunction.
In December, a protracted legal battle in Connecticut came to an end when the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned the state banking commissioner's four-year-old ban on the fees, ruling that the commissioner's interpretation of an old state law was incorrect. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has pledged to get behind state legislation this spring.
Last fall in Iowa, an appeals court ruled that a state law barring banks without branches in Iowa from operating ATMs there did not apply to nationally chartered banks. State officials fear the decision could lead to the undoing of a separate state law banning surcharges. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said on Feb. 2 that he would appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In New York, the debate could flare up in Albany as well as New York City. Sources said a bill is likely to be introduced in the state senate in the coming weeks. A proposal drafted by Auriela Greene, a Democratic state assemblywoman, passed in the assembly in 1998 but died in the Senate rules committee. A new proposal from Ms. Greene has been referred to the standing committee on banks; Ms. Greene is chairman of that committee.
Proposals in Minnesota and Illinois are also likely to be revived. "It's almost more politics these days than policy," said Steven Johnson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Bankers Association. "All 201 legislators are up for re-election, so they always try to make each other take tough votes."