GIVE VIRGINIA'S House of Delegates credit for surprising the socks off the banking lobbyists on Thursday, but don't look for a whole lot of credit back from those banks if the legislators' maneuver holds up. In a voice vote on an amendment that Del. Bernard Cohen of Alexandria had kept secret, the lawmakers approved a restriction on credit card policies. Under current law, cardholders have a 25-day interest-free grace period in which to pay the balance on their statements; if they carry over any outstanding balance from one billing to the next, the grace period is forfeited and banks may assess finance charges on that old balance as well as new purchases added to it. That's expensive, but it's common practice around the country -- and no secret.

Why this provision was ever written into state law is a good question. But just as the state shouldn't have enacted that earlier provision favoring the banks, it shouldn't be guaranteeing grace periods for cardholders, either. To say this is not to endorse these practices, only to argue against prohibiting them by law. If some bank wants to compete by offering better terms, fine; but if people continue to apply for or accept offers of credit cards at high rates of interest with finance charges on all outstanding balances, that's their choice.

What if those lawmakers who support legal restrictions on bank charges were to extend their same thinking to pricing policies of other businesses in Virginia? Are businesses ready for such controls, or would they prefer to let the free market operate? Banks, like any other businesses, are subject to certain regulations. But state-imposed controls on the pricing of banking services doesn't promote competition -- and it doesn't stop the banks from shutting down credit card operations or moving them out of the state. The state senate should consider these bad effects of the amendment when the bill comes back from the house -- and kill the provision.