Lawmakers, AG look to halt price gouging

By Jon Kalahar - email

JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - All eyes continue to be on gas prices, waiting to see if they'll drop any further. But one thing's for sure, if a storm threatened the gulf, gas prices would sky rocket.

At the state capitol, lawmakers hope to do something to help out not only consumers, but retailers as well.

From Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 to this year's storms Gustav and Ike, price gouging complaints were cut in half, says state Attorney General Jim Hood. Now he's testifying before a select House committee on gas prices to back legislation aimed at cutting price gouging back even further.

"We'll prevent those that anticipate the storm coming in and increase their prices," said Hood.

Price gouging is when a business increases prices on things like gas, building supplies or hotel rooms. But it must be during a state of emergency declaration and must be for profit. Hood wants the authority to use a market disruption provision. That way a threatening storm can't influence prices at the pump or in stores.

"If you'll remember in Ike that no wind hit South Carolina, but their fuel prices went up, Georgia fuel shortages. So we need that authority in case one hits Texas and we don't get any wind from it or affects as we did in Ike," said Hood.

Jerry Wilkerson disagrees. He represents the Mississippi petroleum marketers and convenience stores association.

"To give the Attorney General the authority to set this up well in advance, when that storm may not come here," said Wilkerson.

Wilkerson says with the up and down of gas prices, the market disruption provision could cause store owners to lose money.

"We have to abide by what the oil companies charge us. They're the ones that set the price, so it's just a matter of what's going on at the time and it changes overnight," said Wilkerson.

A bill is expected to be brought before the house favoring the Attorney General's idea during the next session.

Hood's office is also looking into price gouging from the supplier level and prices charged to store owners.