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In Pennsylvania, attorney general lacks power to investigate price gouging at the gas pump

In Pennsylvania, attorney general lacks power to investigate price gouging at the gas pump
In Pennsylvania, attorney general lacks power to investigate price gouging at the gas pump 03:02

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- As gasoline prices now average more than $5 a gallon, and oil companies post record profits this year, many suspect price-gouging at the pump.

Pennsylvania has among the weakest laws in the nation when it comes to investigating and preventing price-gouging. Unlike some states, service stations here can raise gas prices multiple times a day, and the state attorney general has no stand-alone power to investigate price-gouging.

Some state lawmakers say that must change.

State law is weak on gas price gouging, say lawmakers who want action 02:43

"We're at over $5 a gallon," said Pennsylvania Sen. Marty Flynn, D-Scranton. "This is getting insane. I could see it if these companies were in the red, but they're making $9 billion profits, one company in the first quarter of 2022. That is astronomical."

Flynn said he's been trying for months to get his colleagues to pass a bill to give the attorney general the power to investigate price-gouging. Their response?

"It's been haphazard, you know?" Flynn said. "Some people have been interested in helping, but the majority set the calendar."

On the House side, Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D-West Mifflin, has an anti-price-gouging bill that he said is attracting bi-partisan support.

"The bill I've introduced has given the attorney general extra powers to go after these bad actors who are just raising the price of goods on Pennsylvanians just because they think they can get away with it," Pisciottano said. "It also establishes a whistle blower program that allows for people on the inside of these corrupt organizations to come forward."

His colleague, Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, is writing a bill to limit how frequently gas stations raise prices and by what percentage.

"These multinational companies are taking advantage of people," Bizzarro said. "They are disrupting the supply chain and charging these unconscionable prices at the pump. We are looking at putting a cap on what they can do."

Will these bills go anywhere in the Republican-controlled legislature?

Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Big Beaver, who chairs the House Consumer Affairs Committee, promises a hearing.

"We plan to have an informational meeting or public hearing on any legislation concerning price gouging this month," Marshall said.

With oil companies posting record first-quarter profits -- $6 billion each for BP and Chevron, $8.8 billion for ExxonMobil and $9 billion for Shell -- some folks suspect price-gouging at the gas pump. But doing something about it seems tougher than ever.

Unlike other states, the attorney general does not have stand-alone authority to investigate and prosecute price-gouging.

"Only during a state of emergency, a disaster declaration, does the attorney general have the power to investigate price gouging," Flynn said. "That's something I am looking to alter and change so that the attorney general can go in on certain industries that really want to stick it to the consumer."

Pisciottano said he agrees.

"It's very possible that if legislation like mine became law, gas prices would stop increasing or go back down because these people who are artificially driving up the prices would face prosecution," Pisciottano said.

Last March, Attorney General Josh Shapiro told KDKA-TV that during the pandemic when the governor declared an emergency, he was able to use that power to act.

"My office was able to engage in thousands of investigations into price-gouging, whether it was for Purel or masks or other things that were associated with really significant price spikes at the time, and we held a lot of businesses and companies accountable," Shapiro said. "The problem is today we can't do that."

One thing could change that. Gov. Wolf could declare an emergency regarding gas prices in Pennsylvania. Flynn said he thinks that would help.

"Without a doubt," he said. "Without a doubt."

Asked if the governor was planning to do that, which would allow the attorney general to go after gasoline price-gouging in this state, the response, "Not at this time."

Wolf instead wants to eliminate the 58-cent gasoline tax and use surplus COVID dollars to give lower income Pennsylvanians a $2,000 check, both of which require approval by the Republican-controlled legislature, which seems unlikely.

Average gas prices in Pittsburgh have now crossed the $5.00 mark for the first time in history, one day after prices in Pennsylvania did the same.

Posted by KDKA-TV | CBS Pittsburgh on Thursday, June 9, 2022
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