Bankers in Virginia and Maryland want to knock down the walls to interstate branching - as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

The Virginia General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive - "opt-in" bill Wednesday, becoming the first state in the nation overtly to embrace the new federal law. By opting in, a state adopts the federal measure before it automatically takes effect in 1997.

The Virginia law is to take effect July 1. In coming weeks, the Maryland General Assembly will consider an opt-in bill that, if approved, would become law Sept. 29.

"We had a series of meetings with bankers last fall," said Margie Muller, Maryland bank commissioner. "In near unanimity, they kept saying, 'Bring it on, we want to compete.' "

Both bills include all the options available under the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act, which was passed by Congress last fall. That means that out-of-state banks could establish new branches from scratch or buy single branches in these states.

Nineteen other states are considering opt-in legislation this year, but most have some sort of restriction in their bills.

The Virginia bill enjoyed success, as the Maryland bill is expected to, because support from large and small banks was overwhelming, observers said.

It "is somewhat unusual that all our bankers are working together on this issue," said Leon Moore, president of the $123 million-asset Bank of Floyd in Floyd, Va., and chairman of the state task force that studied the issue. "Everyone is kind of on the same wavelength on this one."

Said Malcolm S. McDonald, president of $12 billion-asset Signet Banking Corp., Richmond, Va.: "Here we have two groups with slightly different motivations, but they coincide. That makes things move a whole lot easier."

Bankers hope that their early action will promote a welcoming, progressive image for out-of-state banks, enhance customer convenience, and improve their banks' efficiency.

"The rationale for opting in early was to position Virginia as a leader on this issue," said Pat Satterfield, executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Banks. "We want to create a favorable climate for businesses coming here."

Small banks in Virginia supported the bill primarily because many are sited near state borders and would like more access to customers in adjoining states without buying whole banks there. In order to branch into those states, the new law includes a reciprocity provision: Virginia institutions can branch into states that have banks branching into Virginia.

Ideally, neighboring states would follow the lead of Virginia and Maryland by also opting in this year, thereby making reciprocity provisions irrelevant, bankers said.

Pennsylvania appears to be heading in the same direction. Delaware, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia are still undecided. North Carolina already has enacted one of the most flexible interstate branching and banking laws in the country.

For the big banks, interstate branching means consolidation and reduced overhead costs. Signet, for example, would likely merge its Virginia, Maryland, and District of Columbia banks into one, said Mr. McDonald.

Virginia also wants to ensure that the big, out-of-state banks that have moved into the state through acquisitions in recent years don't move to more banker-friendly states, bankers said. That could cause job losses and a drain on tax revenue, among other consequences.

There are some voices of dissent.

R. Michael S. Menzies, president of First Bank of Frederick in Maryland, a $70 million-asset institution, opposes opting in early in part because he believes community banks could use the full two years to prepare for the increased competition. This would require some restructuring and forming of alliances with other service providers, he said.

Mr. Menzies said he also is apprehensive about the prospect of a large percentage of the state's deposits being controlled by out-of-state banks.

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