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AUSTIN - Community bankers in Texas have kicked off a campaign to scuttle interstate branching - and the movement could soon spread to other states.

The Independent Bankers Association of Texas resolved last week that the state should opt out of the new federal interstate law. That law, signed by President Clinton last week, gives each state such an option.

The campaign will pit Texas' community banks against such behemoths as BankAmerica Corp., Norwest Corp. and NationsBank Corp., each of which has banks in Texas. Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank has already launched a Texas advertising blitz in support of interstate branching.

Texas, whose legislature is likely to take up an opt-out proposal early next year, is the first big banking state to tackle the issue.

Many other states will be watching "to see which way the wind is blowing," said Christopher Williston, chief executive of the Texas group.

The leadership of the Independent Bankers Association of America flew into Texas last week to advise the state group, which was holding its annual convention in Austin. The IBAA officials warned that an opt-out campaign would require substantial resources.

"Everybody realized it was going to be a fight," said Cleve Breedlove, incoming chairman of the Texas group. "When you make a commitment to this you're going up against some big forces."

Big banking companies with operations in a number of states have pushed hard for interstate branching, which would allow subsidiary banks to be run as branches. But smaller banks have fretted that interstate organizations would siphon deposits out of communities.

With the new campaign, the Independent Bankers Association of Texas could clash with the Texas Bankers Association.

That group, which represents both multistate banks and community banks, has been advised by its legislative committee to take a neutral stance. Many bankers in Texas, however, expect the association's board to come out in favor of interstate branching.

That would mark the first policy rift between the two groups since 1985, when the state first opened its borders to out-of-state banks and dropped unit banking.

"We feel like this is not just a community bank issue," said the Independent Banker's Mr. Breedlove. "We will frame it as an issue over the health of the banking industry in Texas and the health of the economy in Texas."

An opt-out bill is to be sponsored in January by state Rep. Kenny Marchant, chairman of the Texas House's banking committee.

In a speech to the independent bankers group on Friday, he tacitly chided NationsBank for spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign "instead of in their community, which is what independent bankers do in this state."

His remarks could be a harbinger of the nature of rhetoric that will accompany the debate this January.

"The large banks will all be spending a lot of money to influence the public," said Mr. Williston. "We just won't be able to match that effort in terms of dollars. But we have emotion on our side."

Mr. Williston said the group lacks a set budget for lobbying both the public and the legislature in support of the opt-out, but has plans to spend up to $200,000 sending its representatives around the state to talk to civic leaders and newspaper editorial boards.

He said the total spend on the lobbying effort will undoubtedly surpass that figure, as individual bankers spend what money and time they can to influence the debate.

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