Some New Hampshire legislators want the state motto-"Live Free or Die"- to apply to automated teller machines.
Three bills have been introduced in the state General Court to minimize or ban ATM surcharges.
Prospects for passage are dubious, but industry experts see the debate as symbolic of states' efforts to deal with the issue before federal legislation is forced on them.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, Alfonse D'Amato of New York, has vowed to make his proposal to ban ATM surcharges a top priority this year.
Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Tennessee are among the states with ATM bills in their legislative hoppers, and regulators in Iowa and Connecticut have used interpretations of existing law to ban surcharging.
The prospect of a patchwork of conflicting laws concerns ATM industry leaders. Stan Paur, president and chief executive officer of Pulse EFT Association in Houston, said the industry may have only just begun battling to retain the right to surcharge.
Mr. Paur, who has testified before Congress on behalf of surcharge proponents, said the "ongoing threat of federal legislation" is causing jitters among ATM owners and deployers. At the same time, many states are drafting their own statutes, responding to the rising tide of outrage from consumers.
"Once this genie gets out of the bottle," he said, "it's going to be difficult to get it back in."
In New Hampshire, a variety of political forces affect the three bills, which were the subject of hearings in January.
One force is the state's strong libertarian streak and resistance to taxes. (New Hampshire does not tax people's income.) Another is that the state is heavily Republican and supportive of new businesses to keep its economy thriving.
"We try to be much more laissez-faire in terms of regulating banks because we want to attract more banks into the state," said state Rep. John B. Hunt, chairman of the House Commerce Committee.
The committee expects to vote this month. A subcommittee this week rejected all three measures: One would ban fees outright; a second would cap fees; and the third would try to prevent double-charging, by which customers are assessed both a surcharge and a foreign transaction fee.
State Rep. Arthur Pelletier, a sponsor of two of the bills, said banks' profitability, particularly through fee income, is reason enough for them to forgo surcharges.
"You have a right to recoup some of your costs," Rep. Pelletier said. But "these guys are raking in big bucks."
Rep. Pelletier said he is "very doubtful" the bills will get out of committee. "I just don't think the consumers are going to be heard."
Mr. Paur said consumers in regions such as the Northeast and Midwest may be experiencing sticker shock. The surcharges started at 25 cents when introduced in Texas in the early 1990s. By the time they reached states like New Hampshire, most were in the $1 range.
Jerry Little, president of the New Hampshire Bankers Association, agreed that the comparatively high fees may have struck customers as unfair. But he also asserted banks have the right to make a profit.
"We probably have done a poor job of explaining to consumers why banks are heading toward fee income and relying less on interest income," Mr. Little said. "Consumers are getting very sensitive over fees in general."
Rep. Pelletier said banks have been using the "convenience" argument- that surcharges provide compensation for easy access to cash- hypocritically.
When banks started installing ATMs en masse, they said "it was much cheaper than a bunch of tellers," he said. "Now, they are saying something different."