Lawmakers to address gas pricing - in January

Bills likely next year

no relief immediately

September 14, 2005|By Andrew A. Green and Michael Dresser | Andrew A. Green and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Upset at the rise in Maryland gas prices since Hurricane Katrina, Maryland legislators said yesterday they will take up anti-price-gouging bills when the General Assembly meets in January.

But they also said they have few ideas for immediate relief for consumers.

Committees from the House of Delegates and state Senate held hearings to try to get to the bottom of the price increases, which have made the average cost of a gallon of gas in Maryland among the highest in the nation.

Like Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who met with oil industry executives last week, lawmakers said they were not satisfied with the explanations for the increase and believe that prices in the state are artificially high.

"Clearly, there's just no explanation, no good reason, for some of the things that are happening," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. "There are real questions in my mind as to whether price gouging is going on."

Lawmakers have considered similar bills before, most recently last spring, but legislators said they think the current gas prices will give the effort more momentum.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.17 in Maryland yesterday but $2.96 nationwide.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. testified in favor of creating an anti-gouging statute. Florida and Tennessee - two of 26 states that have such laws - have brought prosecutions on gouging charges since Katrina and are seeing results in lower gas prices, he said.

"Does an anti-gouging statute make a difference?" Curran said. "I can certainly tell you it has in Florida. It has in Tennessee."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said lawmakers would want to avoid the problems caused by price regulations in the 1970s, but he said there must be a way to stop gouging without unduly disrupting the market.

"There's got to be an expert economist who can say, `This is where the fault lies. ... This is what states can do to protect the consumers who are getting raked at the gas pumps,'" Miller said.

Those who don't drive might soon see the effects of higher gas prices. Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday that the Maryland Transit Administration is considering fare increases to cope with the spike in fuel costs.

Flanagan said the MTA expects to spend $15 million on gas this year - nearly twice the $8 million previously estimated. By law, the agency is required to recover at least 40 percent of its expenses from fares.

Amtrak has announced it will raise its fares 5 percent to 7 percent to cover fuel cost increases.

Any proposal to raise MTA fares would be brought to a public hearing, Flanagan said.

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