- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

RICHMOND A Virginia House panel yesterday killed a bill that would have banned large retailers from selling gas below cost, with opponents arguing that the measure would have been a slap in the face to free markets.
In what observers called the most lobbied bill of the session, the House Commerce and Labor Committee struck down a bill on a 12-9 vote that proponents said would ensure the survival of small-business owners at a time when the economy is sagging and many businesses are folding.
The bill targeted chains like Sheetz, Wawa, Wal-Mart and Costco, which often sell gas at below-market prices, because they do not rely on the product for their survival. Smaller chains claim they suffer because they cannot lower their prices, and customers then accuse them of price gouging.
"This is a gut-wrenching issue because you hear the stories, the heart-wrenching stories of family-owned businesses and how they are suffering," said Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican. "But the policy embodied in this bill strikes against the free-enterprise system of government that we hold dear."
The hearing was standing room only, filled mostly with supporters of the bill, and lasted more than two hours. Several small-business owners testified that they needed the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, Pennsylvania County Republican, in order to survive. They said they do not mind competition as long as it is fair.
"I have every hometown advantage," said Christopher Judd, owner of a Chevron gas station in Ashland. He noted he pumps self-serve gas for elderly customers and has deep family roots in the area.
"I am the type of guy who goes all out, but I live on Main Street, not Wall Street. … I don't have deep pockets, and deep pockets is their only advantage," Mr. Judd said.
Bonnie Burley Crews, whose family has owned a gas station/market in Lynchburg for 50 years, said her revenue has dropped 35 percent and she has had to lay off employees as a result of the chains moving in.
"We have faced competition many times and have never been afraid of it," Mrs. Crews said. "Competition is better for the customer, but predatory pricing is bad."
Opponents of the bill said the fear of businesses losing money was a "phantom fear." They pointed to the fact that existing laws are already on the books in Virginia that allow for recourse should a small-business owner feel he is at an disadvantage. A representative from the attorney general's office said no complaints had been filed under the existing law.
The main argument against the bill was that it essentially mandated to businesses how much they could charge for gas. "It makes low prices illegal," said Mike Cortez, vice president and general counsel for Sheetz.
Sheetz is a family-owned business that began 50 years ago as a small shop in Altoona, Pa., and has expanded to more than 270 stores, including several in Northern Virginia and Maryland.
"Go down any main street in America and you see two-for-one hamburgers. This law makes that illegal," Mr. Cortez told the committee. "When have consumers come to you and said, 'You have to protect us from this evil?'"

The state would require public schools to post "In God We Trust" signs but would not pay for them if legislation passed yesterday by the Senate becomes law.
The 28-11 vote on Delegate Robert G. Marshall's bill came a day after the Senate passed legislation to post the national motto in state courtrooms. However, that bill was amended to require that the state pay for the signs.
Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, Fairfax Democrat, wanted to add the same amendment to the school bill. By paying for the signs, she said, the state could ensure they are all alike.
Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, Fairfax Democrat, agreed. "Without this, we're setting up differences between rich and poor districts," she said. "If this is worth doing, it's worth doing by the government of Virginia."
However, Republican Sen. William T. Bolling of Hanover County said the amendment to the courtroom bill was intended to avoid possible conflicts of interests that would arise if judges had to solicit private contributions to pay for the signs. There was no such rationale for adding the funding requirement to the school bill, he said.
"The practical effect of the amendment would be to delay implementation of the bill," said Mr. Bolling, noting that there is no money in the state budget to pay the unknown cost of the signs.
The Senate voted 25-15 to reject Mrs. Puller's amendment. The bill now goes back to the House for consideration of a Senate amendment to make the entire message read, "In God We Trust, the National Motto enacted by Congress in 1956."
Gov. Mark R. Warner has not taken a position on the bill.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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