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Editorial: Law against gouging helped

Excerpted from the News & Record of Greensboro:
No one’s trying to sell gas for $5 a gallon around here anymore.
Clearly, Gov. Mike Easley and Attorney General Roy Cooper grabbed the attention of gas stations that pumped up prices well beyond $4, and in some cases $5, on Sept. 12 when Hurricane Ike was bearing down on the Texas coast and its refineries.
The governor declared a state of “abnormal market disruption,” triggering the state’s price-gouging law. Cooper announced he meant to enforce the law vigorously and began investigating complaints. Prices quickly retreated.
Nevertheless, there’s no happy ending yet. While prices have settled down since Sept. 12, North Carolina’s average price for a gallon of regular was $3.871 on Oct. 2, according to AAA. The national average was $3.598, and prices were higher only in Alaska, Hawaii and Georgia. Related to that problem: Supplies are spotty in the Triad, and shortages are more acute, and prices higher, in Charlotte, Asheville and other parts of western North Carolina.
In an interview at the News & Record recently, Cooper vowed to pursue his investigation up the supply chain. The gouging law applies to distributors, wholesalers and manufacturers, as well as retailers. Cooper said he intends to find out if there’s been any manipulation in the North Carolina market.
Meanwhile, the debate has shifted to the city level ó with a dose of statewide politics in the mix. Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor, is under fire for not ordering gas rationing. He alternately explained he didn’t think he had the power to intervene, and it wouldn’t have helped if he did.
The best approach, Cooper said, would be to ask retailers to restrict customers’ purchases. But, if retailers have to be restrained by law from raising prices, could they be expected to limit sales voluntarily?
Politicians naturally won’t promote policies that encourage price-gouging. Doing so would favor the wealthy over the less-affluent who need gas to get to work, Cooper said.
He’s right, and his threat to enforce the law certainly has helped hold down prices. But prices are still higher in North Carolina than almost anywhere else, and the law isn’t pumping up supplies. There isn’t a quick fix for every market disruption.

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