When a political fight gets truly ugly, it’s a pretty good bet that the stuff below the surface is what is really driving the debate. The stormy, 20-year fight between Utah banks and credit unions has gotten to that stage. They say it is in part about market share. They say it’s also about competitive fairness. But what it’s really about is ideology.
Banks want credit unions to be more like banks. They want credit unions to declare profits, then pay taxes on those profits. In short, banks would rather credit unions were not what they are: democratic, member-run institutions that operate on a non-profit basis and hold funds in reserve to ensure their stability for the long-term benefit of their members.
This, the banks say, sounds like Marxism.
Hyperbole? Here’s what the Utah Banker’s Association says on its website: “Profit is what drives the free market. We can draw attention to the fact that credit union activists eventually come off sounding like Marxists.” http://www.uba.org/credit_unions/editor.html.
If that’s true, isn’t it interesting that even Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a key adviser to President Bush, has come down on the side of the pesky “socialists” in opposing House Bill 162, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Alexander (R-Provo), which would impose new taxes on credit unions.
The latest version of the bill delays implementation of the 30 percent tax on so-called “retained earnings” until a legislative commission can study the matter. It retains a new 5 percent corporate franchise tax. House Speaker Marty Stephens, a vice president at Zions Bank, has declared he will steer clear of the debate, but let’s be real. He’s the Speaker. We all know where he stands. Anyone wanting to curry favor is going to vote with him on this one. Also on the side of the banks is another impartial expert, former Sen. Jake Garn, co-author of the Garn-St. Germain Act in 1982, which deregulated the S&L industry.
Credit unions are popular in Utah because they still care about their customers. What bankers are trying to do is fix with law what their own policies have belied for years. Heard the expression “cold as a banker’s heart”? Banks forfeited consumer trust a long time ago when they started jacking up one fee after another and imposing restrictions on how you can use your own money.
When I moved to Utah a few months ago, I went from bank to bank looking for the best deal to open a checking account. One bank, Wells Fargo, told me its policy on deposits was to hold them for four days, even if I was depositing cash. Cash. My cash.
Banks want credit unions not to be credit unions anymore. They want them to be banks, because they can’t stand the idea of competing with a cooperative. Cooperatives are evil. They are Marxist. They are, therefore, un-American.
I wonder. In a recent poll by that quasi-pinko newspaper, the Deseret News, 57 percent of Utahns oppose additional taxes on their credit unions.
Perhaps we’re going about this backwards—which is not surprising from this nutty bunch at the Legislature. Perhaps we should be trying to make banks more like credit unions. That would be the Utah thing to do.