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Dispute stalling bill to ban discount gas

Lobbyists agree on little as they examine a bill, triggered by Wal-Mart cards that reduce gas prices at some stations.

legislature 2000
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By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Legislators are struggling with a bill that would prohibit stores such as Wal-Mart from giving customers a discount on gasoline they buy at an adjacent service station.

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Thrasher entered the fray by making an unusual appearance at a work session between warring lobbyists for Wal-Mart, Murphy Oil Co. and Petroleum Marketers.

"This is obviously a very important issue for the people of Florida," Thrasher told the lobbyists.

Twenty-seven lobbyists and others interested in the bill jammed into a tiny conference room in the House for a work session.

Rep. Mark Ogles, chairman of the House committee considering the bill, tried to forge an agreement between lobbyists, who finally agreed they could agree on none of the key issues.

"We haven't been able to agree on whether the sun will come up tomorrow," said Murphy Oil lobbyist Steve Metz.

Lobbyists for the state's Petroleum Marketers Association want legislators to approve bills that stop Wal-Mart and other stores from selling below-cost gasoline to their customers. The marketers think Wal-Mart already is in violation of the law, but they want it clarified.

Wal-Mart offers discount-gas cards at 14 superstores in Florida, including one in Plant City. The cards give purchasers a 3-cents-a-gallon price break.

The bills would amend a 1985 law that makes it illegal to sell gasoline for less than cost -- a protective measure put in place to keep refinery-owned service stations from cutting prices to drive other stations out of business.

Florida is one of nine states that prohibit below-cost gasoline sales. Lobbyists for Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil said the law has cost Floridians an extra $2-billion in the 15 years it has been on the books. The courts in some states have declared similar laws to be unconstitutional, but Florida's courts have upheld the law.

Lobbyists for the Petroleum Marketers say the price of gas in Florida is 4 cents lower than the national average.

Lobbyists for Wal-Mart, Murphy Oil, the Florida Retail Federation and consumer groups are among those opposing the bill. Indeed, they'd like to see the 1985 law repealed altogether so anyone could sell at a discount.

"Do we need this law at all?" Metz asked.

He urged legislators to do their own study of the situation before passing another bill.

"It sounds to me like they are afraid a consumer-pricing virus might break out and people would have access to low-cost gasoline," said John Rogers, lobbyist for the Retail Federation. "This is government price fixing -- it's not a real price."

After a lengthy discussion, Rep. Ogles said he would not consider a section of the marketers' proposal that would make discount cards illegal, but he said he does think some controls need to be in place.

Ogles also agreed to include a clause in the bill that requires service stations to figure the cost of gasoline by including taxes, fees, freight, direct labor and reasonable rent, despite objections from the retailers, who say similar costs are not factored into most retail sales.

Ogles said he is worried about refinery-owned service stations discounting their prices until they run competitors out. In small towns across Florida, that could become a serious problem, he said.

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