Column: All that's left of banks in Carson City is the branches

"A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain...."

Robert Frost

Do you love your bank? Do you like your bank? Do you even know the name of your bank this week? I don't. Three of the banks I use have either merged or are merging, all within a few weeks' time.

Since the advent of branch banking back in the 1980s, and the classification of Savings and Loans as banks shortly thereafter, coupled with merger mania in order to bolster bank stock prices in this phony market, nobody is operating a genuine bank in this town today!

It's weird. You go into today's branch banks and you see shirt-and-tie MBA types playing computer games totally oblivious to what's going on around them, doing everything possible to avoid eye contact with customers.

The older power-dressed women are usually on the phone probably explaining the latest computer screw-up of a customer account. And the teller ladies are trying to be nice to everybody, the looks in their eyes betraying their insecurity, wondering if they're going to have a job after the next merger.

No, it wasn't always like that. Prior to 1985, branch banking wasn't legal in Nevada. All Nevada banks were home-grown and we did business with real bankers like Ed Block, Fred Paulsen, Mike Grimm, Greg Nixon, Ed Rodden, Darlene Berry, and others.

Nevada banks loaned money to Nevada projects. I remember being a founding member of Comstock Bank back in the late '70s, which was the first state bank to be chartered in Nevada in 16 years. We had our start-up troubles, but we were a happy little bank who helped ordinary citizens, and with improved management over the years, we grew, only to be swallowed up by an out-of-state bank.

How did all this happen? Back in 1985 when I was in the Assembly, a very politically influential man by the name of Sid Stern owned Nevada First Bank, a small bank which had its origins as Nevada First Thrift, which was a small finance company.

Sid was at home in the halls of the Nevada Legislature. He was the legislative banking watchdog. He knew all the game players and was most generous with campaign contributions. And I got my share.

Anyway, Sid decided he wanted to sell Nevada First Bank to Bank of America, which wanted a foothold in Nevada. He hired the best lobbyist in the business and embarked upon the mission of getting legislation passed which would approve branch banking in Nevada, thus allowing out-of-state banks to open branches here or buy existing Nevada banks and make them branches.

Sid's bill came over to us from the Senate where it had already passed, and I fought it on the floor of the Assembly chambers with all the debating skills I could muster. I explained to my colleagues that Nevada banking was unique, and our great American agricultural machine was built by small, hometown banks all across the fruited plain. It wasn't built by big banks. I told them that ordinary folks need little banks, and that in Canada the entire nation has only about a dozen banks. I've dealt with those banks and they're next to impossible for small projects.

Well, I guess I was on my game that day because we defeated the branch banking bill by three or four votes. Imagine my surprise three days later when the bill came up again for reconsideration. This was most unusual, so I concluded that Sid or his lobbyist had the speaker locked in on this one. Anyway, I gave another impassioned floor speech and lo and behold, we defeated it, again by one vote. But I knew we were in trouble when the lobbyist, who by the way was a good friend of mine, said, "Bob, it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."

Sure enough, a few days later, the bill came up for reconsideration for a third vote and this time it passed by one. It was never reconsidered again. That's how we got branch banking.

Sid sold his bank to Bank of America and became a multi-millionaire overnight. Come to think of it, Sid may have already been a multi-millionaire, and if he was, it's because he earned it. He was a good man and a great philanthropist who died before his time. The fact that I totally disagreed with him on the matter of branch banking in no way detracted from my respect for him as a human being. In retrospect, I think Sid was probably the legislative point man for other Nevada bankers who quietly wanted to sell to out-of-state banks.

In fact, knowing Sid, and being aware of the great things he did for our communities, I think he would be appalled, today, to see the depths to which Nevada banking has sunk since the passage of his fateful legislation.

Will Nevada banking get better? I doubt it. We've too many juiceless technocrats out there who are merely clones of their beloved computers. Their mating rituals are most likely confined to periods of electrical power failure.

Bob Thomas is a Carson City businessman, local curmudgeon and former member of the Carson City School Board and Nevada State Assembly.


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