First Chicago Corp. and NationsBank Corp. have snared lucrative contracts to help the federal government develop and launch an electronic tax-payment system.

As "financial agents" of the Treasury Department, the companies will collect tax payments on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service, using electronic data interchange and funds-transfer technologies now chiefly employed in the remote-banking field.

Under the arrangement, companies and individuals will be able to pay their taxes electronically, using personal computers, telephones, mainframe computers, and point-of-sale terminals.

In awarding the business to the banking companies, the federal government has underscored its intention, voiced repeatedly in the past year, to pull out of the payments-processing business.

The move clears the way for banks and other financial companies to sweep in and create innovative remote-banking opportunities, as well as a substantial new line of income.

First Chicago executives estimate this business will generate more than $400 million in revenue over the life of the seven-year deal. NationsBank officials would not provide any such projections.

The U.S. Treasury Department expects that within five years, about $1 trillion in tax revenue will be collected electronically, saving the government a projected $433 million by the year 1999 if all goes well.

The two banks, selected from a field of six potential candidates, will design their systems separately through partnerships and subcontracts with other banks and financial-services companies. But both banks will confer with each other on managing the business for the U.S. Treasury Department.

The Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, as it is called, should be up and running by September 1995, spokesman said.

Donald R. Hollis, executive vice president of First Chicago, said the system would draw on the bank's "expertise in cash management as well as its superb technology skills."

First Chicago has already forged an alliance with Mercantile Bancorp., which participated in a recent pilot of the electronic tax-collection project for the government, called Tax Link. Mercantile will focus on the customer enrollment and servicing end of this program, according to John H. Beirise, president and chief institutional banking officer for Mercantile Bank.

Together, First Chicago and Mercantile process more than half of the lockbox transactions for the Internal Revenue Service.

NationsBank is also a member of the Treasury's lockbox network, processing remittances for a number of government agencies.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company will work jointly with First National Bank of Maryland, among other partners, in developing its electronic tax-payment system.

According to Larry Dreyer, a vice president for NationsBank's federal government banking division, this project will extend the bank's relationship with the government as well as its own electronic banking initiatives.

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