Florida's banking regulator is proposing a new state savings bank charter that's being billed as an option for credit unions and federal thrifts.

The proposed charter would let institutions choose either the mutual or stock form of ownership. Florida hasn't offered a charter that permits mutual ownership since eliminating the old mutual thrift charter in 1992.

"We did not want to preclude any of those entities from converting to a mutual savings bank," said Doug Johnson, assistant director of the Florida Division of Banking. "Right now they don't have an option."

Whether institutions will jump at the chance to switch charters remains to be seen, Mr. Johnson said. "We're not marketers," he said. "We just feel it's a viable option."

Currently, Florida offers charters for commercial banks and savings and loans. The state is following in the footsteps of Michigan and 29 other states that have established savings bank charters.

The Michigan law's aim was to create a safe haven for federal thrifts that want to keep their focus on mortgage lending should the federal thrift charter be merged into the federal bank charter.

The Florida proposal, however, is also aimed at credit unions that might want to convert.

The Florida Bankers Association hasn't formally reviewed the proposed charter, but the group's executive vice president said he sees it as a way to get tax-exempt credit unions that want to expand their customer bases to pay taxes. John Milstead said that it will be an option if all credit unions can no longer seek membership outside their common bond. Federal credit unions, which are also mutually owned, can no longer accept members from more than one company.

"Our initial look at it, we think it has a great many positive aspects," Mr. Milstead said.

Jeff Grady, executive director of the Community Bankers of Florida, said his group would likely push for legislation enacting the new charter. The proposal will be introduced in the Florida legislature next March.

Although the two main bankers groups have given their initial blessing, the Florida Credit Union League said it has yet to study the proposal.

Mark Ivester, director of marketing and communication for the Florida Credit Union League, said the proposed legislation is not directed at credit unions. Besides, he said he's unaware of any credit unions who want to convert to a thrift charter.

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