There are few sure-fire ways for State Attorney Generals and other public officials to garner consumer and media attention that could be any better than an investigation of 'price gouging.'
And unfortunately, for all the noise and hubbub that can be generated over gasoline prices and the prospect of 'price gouging' the rhetoric rarely ever yields any instances where retailers are found guilty and prosecuted.
That's right. It's much ado about nothing. More often than not the politicos issue terrific-sounding press releases and reporters chase after them for fresh quotes and sound-bites and that's the end of that. Who is ever convicted for price-gouging? Nobody.
The latest state to join the list of those investigating price gouging is W. Virginia. Gov. Earl Tomblin declared a state of emergency last week when storms knocked out power across the state and through much of the midwest and mid-Atlantic.
In the aftermath of the storm, some residents accused retailers of price-gouging on commodities like ice, generators and gasoline. Tomblin noted that only a few calls related to gasoline, "and I haven't heard anything where anyone came close to a 10 percent hike." Nonetheless, he said his office is investigating prices and going back to 10 days prior. he said that "West Virginia's price gouging law means that 'you take the date of the emergency declaration, go back 10 days, and whatever the price was then, you can raise it 10 percent before we get interested."
Alaska is curruently trying to draft price-gouging legislation and one bill before the State Senate targets refineries and stipulates that prices cannot exceed 10 percent of those charged by Seattle-based refineries. Companies found guilty of price gouging would face a penalty equal to at least 10 times the profit gained from the practice.
Rhode Island has no price-gouging law but one lawmaker is calling on the State's General Assembly to pass one that prohibits retailers from "significantly inflating prices on gasoline and other commodities during an emergency."
In Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick directed state inspectors in March to intensify efforts to uncover incidents of price gouging. In addition to price-gouging, inspectors were told to crack down on violations of advertising rules which includes posting prices on street signage that were lower than rates charged at the pump.
Of course, they mean well.
In California, the state law sets "a 10 percent cap on price increases following an emergency." And that means any price spikes occuring before the state declares it's state of emergency are not subject to prosecution.
Florida's price gouging law is equally vacuous. Its definition precludes price gouging from existing outside of a "state of emergency." And, Florida's law fails to quantify price-gouging so consumers and retailers can easily understand it.
Florida Statute 501.160 states that "During a state of emergency it is unlawful to sell essential commodities for an amount that grossly exceeds the average price for that commodity during the 30 days before the declaration of the state of emergency, unless the seller can justify the price by showing increases in its prices or market trends."
'Grossly exceeds'? Are they kidding? And naturally, the Attorney General's office has established a Price-Gouging Hotline.
At a time when we need more diligent effort to protect consumers these distractions produce nothing but great theatre for public officials needing face time on the 6 o'clock news. And it's an inane waste of taxpayer resources, time and money.