target more customers, offer more commercial loans, start selling brokerage services, and even punish those who spread falsehoods about them.
But bank trade groups are vowing to fight the proposal, which they say would give Wisconsin's more than 350 state-chartered credit unions an unfair advantage over taxpaying community banks.
The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Frank Lasee, a Republican, and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat, is expected to be introduced into Assembly and Senate committees next week.
What worries bank groups most is that the bill would throw credit union doors open to the state's 5.2 million residents by lifting membership restrictions. About 1.9 million people belong to the state's credit unions.
Members of Wisconsin credit unions currently must share a bond, such as working for a particular industry. The legislation would allow anyone who works or lives in an area served by a credit union to join that institution.
"There are people and places in this state that don't have access to a credit union but need it," said Evan G. Bane, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Credit Union League. "We want to get rid of this outdated, restrictive language that makes it too difficult to join a credit union."
Bank groups, naturally, say credit unions would be overstepping their bounds.
"This opens membership to almost anybody in the state of Wisconsin," said Daryll Lund, president and chief executive officer of the Community Bankers of Wisconsin. "This runs contrary to the premise that credit unions were formed for."
Bankers also fear provisions that would let credit unions offer products such as individual retirement accounts and equipment leasing and make it easier for credit unions to set up for-profit subsidiaries to make commercial loans.
"This lets a credit union act like a taxpaying financial institution, only without that annoying little requirement of paying taxes," said Kurt Bauer, a lobbyist with the Wisconsin Bankers Association.
Mr. Bane called bankers' claims about infringing on their commercial loan territory "nothing but a bunch of rot." Federal law prohibits credit unions from expanding beyond a limited commercial lending role, he said, and the loans they handle typically are small -- for example, to a plumber who needs a new truck for his business.
The oddest provision in the bill is one that would allow Wisconsin courts to imprison for up to 15 years and fine up to $5,000 anyone found guilty of slandering or libeling a credit union. That, bankers say, would be a violation of free speech.
"Soon I could be indicted for talking about credit unions," Mr. Bauer said, only half-jokingly. "If this thing passes and a reporter calls, I might have to say, 'No comment.' "