By Elizabeth Coe and Beth Ward
Facing a bank of microphones and television cameras last Friday, Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. confronted leaders of the gasoline industry over what he termed Maryland’s “artificially high” gas prices and said he was “not satisfied with the answer in respect to price.”
Coming from a conservative Republican with a pro-business record, Ehrlich’s jawboning of private businesses over price might have seemed somewhat out of character. But his remarks are a symptom of a major dilemma facing politicians throughout the state.
On the one hand, their constituents are angry and frustrated over high gasoline prices and are demanding that something be done. On the other, legislators at the state and local level know they have little power to do anything to lower the price or help regulate the nation’s fuel supply.
The unspoken question is how anxiety caused by high fuel prices will affect voters’ decisions in the upcoming elections, still more than a year away.
“This could affect elections, if the prices stay high for the long-term,” said Del. Brian R. Moe (D- Prince George’s and Anne Arundel). “We need to figure out the best way for Maryland to work with the feds toward a solution.”
Likewise, Del. Maggie McIntosh (D., Baltimore) predicts that “gas and energy issues will be a driving force in this election,” even one so far away. “People are worried about it,” she said. “The cost of gasoline is very significant.”
But where does that leave state legislators, just as frustrated as their constituents but without a wide range of options to pursue.
“I think my constituents want us to look at energy usage and savings,” McIntosh said, “but in all honestly it is a federal issue. There’s not a whole lot the state can do.”
Del. Joseph J. Minnick (D- Baltimore County) said the first step toward a solution is to pass on information to his constituents so they understand the issue.
“This is confusing to the average person,” he said. “All they know is that they’re paying more at the pump and they don’t know why.”
Legislators and especially the governor are under a lot of pressure, Minnick said, because people expect them to do something to affect change.
In fact, said Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, Ehrlich is doing something. He asked the attorney general to work on price gouging legislation, and he has demanded answers from the industry about the reasons for high prices.
Fawell said that Ehrlich has by no means abandoned his free market principles. “I’ve been working with the governor for six years and this is the same man,” he said. “To go against the free market system would be regulate prices. The governor is just holding the private sector accountable.”
Some legislators blame price gouging for the high cost of gas and want to work with Attorney General J. Joseph Curran to pass anti-gouging legislation.
“I’ve been getting close to 200 phone calls a day from people asking why this is happening,” Curran said. “We need to investigate whether price gouging has occurred.”
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have a price gouging statute, he said, and Maryland could benefit from having one.
“It’s hard to believe that we don’t already have one,” said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, “We can’t control the barrels of crude oil, and we can’t control the number of refineries that are built, but we should have a concern about price gouging. It is the one part of the problem we can address.”
Sen. George W. Della (D-Baltimore) said instances of price gouging have occurred, but he isn’t sure what legislators can do to effectively stop it.
“It’s nice to be able to tell people ‘We’re going to do something,'” he said. “Well I’d like to do something, but I’m not going to give people false hope.”
Della said he would support anti-gouging legislation, but it may be difficult to enforce.
“I dont know how you can legislate people from price gouging,” he said. “I dont know how you can legislate honesty.”
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said he is outraged by the situation and feels obligated to respond to the frustration of his constituents.
“It’s hard for me to understand why gas is one price in one part of my county and up the road it’s another price,” he said. “I am as confused as anyone.”
The first step, he said, is to start working with the Attorney General to determine if price gouging did occur. The second step is to act appropriately, he said, by passing an anti-gouging law.
Whatever the solution, Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said he would be willing to work toward one on the state level.
“We don’t need to drag our feet and wait for Congress to do something,” he said.
But in terms of politics, Democrat Pinsky said, the blame falls on the federal government. “This will point more to President Bush,” he said. “His numbers are so low they are almost in the toilet with the federal response to Katrina, gas prices and the war. People are getting disgusted with the federal government.”