A group called Concerned Bankers for Missouri's Future has joined the interstate branching battle by pushing legislation to allow Missouri banks to branch across state lines before 1997.

The Concerned Bankers, whose members include four former presidents of the Missouri Bankers Association, has introduced legislation to opt in early on the interstate branching component of the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Act.

Meantime, the Missouri Bankers Association is staying neutral on interstate branching because its membership is split over the contentious issue. The Missouri Independent Bankers Association, on the other hand, previously introduced legislation to opt out of interstate branching.

Jerry Sage, the independent trade group's executive director, said the Missouri Bankers Association's neutral stance, coupled with its former leaders forming the Concerned Bankers group, "looks fairly suspicious to me."

He went further in his group's February 1995 newsletter: "Legislators who are familiar with the MBA leadership over the years might well assume these proposals have the MBA's blessing," Mr. Sage said. "It might look as if the MBA is trying to keep their fingerprints off of the gun."

But Max Cook, executive director of the Missouri Bankers Association, said the Concerned Bankers is not part of the MBA and does not reflect its position on interstate branching.

"We are absolutely, positively neutral," Mr. Cook said. "The MIBA's trying to make everyone believe we were involved with it by the fact that . . . four of our past presidents signed onto it," he said.

In fact, he said, because some members support the early opt-in, while others favor the opt-out bill, the group's board decided not to support either.

"If your membership is divided down the middle, how do you take a position?" Mr. Cook asked.

John L. Harlin, a member of both associations and a member of the Concerned Bankers, said he wants opportunities to expand his $80 million- asset bank into Arkansas.

"I know they (MIBA) think there's a conspiracy, and that's not the case," said Mr. Harlin, president and chief executive of Bank of Gainesville.

The Concerned Bankers was formed to counter the Missouri Independent Bankers' opt-out legislation and to prevent the Missouri Bankers Association from splitting in two over the issue, said Norman J. Tice, executive vice president of Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis, who spearheaded the effort.

The Concerned Bankers believes interstate branching is particularly important in Missouri, which borders eight states, and is not a big bank versus little bank issue, Mr. Tice said.

"If you don't make some kind of integration with the states around you, it's going to have exactly the reverse effect than what the independent bankers think," he said.

For instance, state-chartered banks might switch to national charters to take advantage of national laws, he said.

The Concerned Bankers also wants to raise the percentage of state deposits a bank can hold to 30% from 13%. Both trade groups oppose raising the federal deposit concentration limit.

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