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Retailers, marketers fight over gas prices

A lobbyist says legislators need to repeal a ban on discount gas or clarify the law to make cheaper gas available.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A watered down version of a gasoline discount bill that is at the heart of a fight between discounters such as Wal-Mart and the state's petroleum marketers was approved 7-1 Tuesday by a House committee.

Lobbyists for Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil Co. remain locked in a battle with the Petroleum Marketers Association over the bill and a 1985 law that prohibits retail service stations from selling below-cost gasoline.

Rep. Mark Ogles, R-Bradenton, chairman of the House Committee on Business Regulation and Consumer Affairs, said the bill as it now stands in the House does nothing to prevent discount gas sales.

But lobbyists for Murphy Oil and Wal-Mart said the new version of the bill merely "remains silent" on the issue, allowing the 1985 law against below-cost sales to stand.

"We think the original law prohibits discount sales and that needs to be clarified," said Steve Metz, lobbyist for Murphy Oil.

Opponents of the bill and the 1985 law say it costs Floridians $150-million a year in extra costs for gas sales. Petroleum Marketers Association insists that Florida gas prices are below average.

Metz urged lawmakers to authorize an independent study to arrive at the truth. The House committee ignored his request and voted to approve the watered down bill. The measure redefines the way costs are determined and transfers enforcement authority from the attorney general to the Department of Agriculture.

The fight over the bill began when Petroleum Marketers got a bill filed that would have specifically banned discount cards that Wal-Mart offers for use at neighboring Murphy Oil stations in 14 Florida markets, including Plant City. A similar bill is pending in the Senate but has not been scheduled for committee consideration.

At a meeting earlier this month, Ogles said he would take out language that referred to discount cards in an effort to make the bill more acceptable to Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil lobbyists.

Metz and Wal-Mart lobbyist Guy Spearman say legislators need to repeal the 1985 law altogether or make it clear that customers can use cash discount cards to make cheaper gas available.

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