Wisconsin banks and credit unions are bickering over dueling legislative proposals that each side claims would unfairly broaden the powers of the other.

Credit union groups have introduced a "Super Credit Union Bill" that would give Wisconsin's 350 state-chartered credit unions the power to offer more products such as individual retirement accounts and commercial loans. The banking industry, of course, opposes the bill on grounds that it would give credit unions - which do not pay income tax - a 40% pricing advantage.

"This bill makes credit unions just like tax-paying financial institutions without the tax-paying part," said Harry J. Argue, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Bankers Association. His advice to credit unions: Convert to state-chartered banks.

Meanwhile, the banking industry is promoting a bill of its own that would give Wisconsin's 330 state-chartered banks the same powers that national banks gained through the financial modernization bill that President Clinton signed into law last month.

Ronald Halvorsen, president of the Wisconsin Credit Union League, said the banks are attacking the credit union proposal "to misdirect the attention of our elected officials and the media away from their gargantuan, power-grabbing bill."

If credit unions had such a great advantage, Mr. Halvorsen said, they already would be forcing banks out of business. Calling Mr. Argue's 40% figure "ludicrous," he also said credit unions face almost as many regulations as banks and that income tax is the only tax credit unions do not pay - because they are not-for-profit.

The war of words became more heated last week when the bankers association sent out a press release featuring an illustration poking fun at the credit unions' bill.

The cartoon depicts two sprinters racing. The runner representing banks faces hurdles with labels such as "taxes" and "regulation," while the credit-union racer has an unobstructed path. In response, the credit union league fired off its own release accusing bankers of using a "smear tactic."

"I sure hope they didn't actually pay someone to draw up this tripe," Mr. Halvorsen said.

Kim L. Kindschi, deputy executive vice president of the Wisconsin Bankers Association, said credit unions are trying to deflect criticism from their own bill, which is supported primarily by Democrats, to the bank bill, which has bipartisan support.

"There's some cat-and-mouse politicking going on," said Mr. Kindschi, who contends that the credit unions started it. He said they are trying to push committee debate about their bill into executive session and out of the public eye.

Mr. Halvorsen's response: "There's no truth in that claim whatsoever. It's not necessary for us to have a fight over these bills."

Both bills are stirring in legislative committees. They are expected to reach the Assembly floor in January.

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