- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

BALTIMORE — Gas prices have surged to the top of election year issues, with candidates in Maryland and Virginia rushing to microphones to address the shock of regional and national energy costs.

“We can and must do more to keep the price of gasoline affordable,” said Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, running for governor in Maryland, at a press conference called to address the energy crunch, including steep increases in electricity rates this summer.

The Democratic front-runner to challenge Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. endorsed harsher measures for gasoline retailers who manipulate prices.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, the mayor’s primary opponent, accused Mr. O’Malley of playing politics.

“The mayor is … picking what he must perceive as the most opportune political moment to be against price gouging at the pump,” said Scott Arceneaux, Mr. Duncan’s campaign manager.

In Maryland’s U.S. Senate race, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has attacked the leading Democratic candidate, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, saying he has voted to raise the federal gas tax four times during his 20 years in Congress.

The federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, and Maryland’s gas tax is 23.5 cents per gallon, according to the Tax Foundation, a District-based nonpartisan tax research group.

Virginia’s gas tax is 17.5 cents per gallon, and the District’s gas tax is 20 cents per gallon.

President Bush, in a speech on energy policy yesterday to the Renewable Fuels Association, said that if Congress had allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a decade ago, the United States would be importing 40 percent of its oil instead of 60 percent.

Mr. Cardin responded by affirming his opposition to ANWR drilling and criticized Mr. Bush’s energy policies, saying they “have led to excessive profits for the oil industry and have done nothing to make the U.S. more energy-independent.”

ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp — the three largest U.S. oil and gas companies — are expected this week to report $16 billion in combined first-quarter revenues, a 19 percent increase from last year.

In Virginia yesterday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said, if necessary, he would invoke state anti-gouging laws against predatory fuel pricing.

“We’ve got price-gouging legislation on the books in Virginia, and I’m going to not hesitate to use it,” the Democrat said on a monthly call-in show on a D.C. radio station.

Mr. Kaine said he would use a bolstered law that takes effect July 1 that allows the governor, during a time of disaster, to force price reductions on any supplier found to be offering goods or services at “such an unconscionable price” that it creates a panic and endangers public welfare.

In the U.S. Senate race in Virginia, the Democratic challenger knocked the Republican incumbent for opposing the price-gouging measure, which was a reaction to accusations that oil companies and retailers had manipulated prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Senate hopeful and Virginia Democrat Harris Miller yesterday renewed a call for “federal criminal laws against price gouging.”

“Maybe if the oil company executives thought they could end up in jail they might behave a little better,” Mr. Miller said.

Republican Sen. George Allen, a potential presidential hopeful in 2008, and Mr. Miller have issued calls for new sources of fuels, using the term “energy independence.”

“We continue to base our energy policy and prices on an unstable, hostile region of the world 8,000 miles away where we are dependent on the whims of some Iranian mullah,” Mr. Allen said last week.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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