Wisconsin bankers are pushing for a bill that would allow state- chartered banks and thrifts-as well as national banks-to share each other's powers.

State bankers say the legislation is necessary in case Congress passes a financial modernization bill that would expand the rights of national banks.

But even if Congress does not act, Wisconsin banks and thrifts would still gain some powers from each other. State banks, for example, would be allowed to invest in real estate. And thrifts, such as $720 million-asset First Northern Savings Bank in Green Bay, could expand commercial lending.

"Regulations should allow you some flexibility," said Michael D. Meeuwsen, president and chief executive officer at First Northern. "I should be able to choose a lending focus without flipping my charter."

The universal charter proposal was introduced as part of Gov. Tommy Thompson's fiscal 2000 budget. The provision was removed from that bill last week because it was not budget-related, but it will be reintroduced as separate legislation.

Maine adopted a similar measure in 1997. Since then, banks and thrifts there have had equal powers, and newly chartered institutions all receive Maine's universal charter.

In Wisconsin, the universal charter would be added to an institution's existing charter and would be granted to applicants that meet regulators' safety and soundness standards.

"We look at this as dual banking protection," said Kurt Bauer, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Bankers Association.

Mr. Bauer said he is optimistic that the Wisconsin version will pass in this legislative session, which runs through the spring of 2000. Legislators did not have enough time to consider the universal charter proposal last year, he said, because it was introduced with only three weeks left in the session.

In addition to the Wisconsin Bankers Association, the Independent Community Bankers Association of Wisconsin also supports the measure. The idea also has the endorsement Richard L. Dean, secretary of Wisconsin's Financial Institutions Department.

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