Washington State Journal - Building a stronger, more just & transparent democracy

By Joseph Claypoole
Washington State Journal 

New bill to target price gougers and protect consume


Last updated 2/24/2021 at 12:59pm

Face masks, $200.

Hand sanitizer, $90.

Peace of mind? Priceless.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson proposed an emergency action bill that would prohibit excessive price increases during a state of emergency.

Under SB 5191, any item priced 10% or higher than it’s sales price immediately before a state of emergency is considered a violation of the bill.

Gary Smith, executive director for the Independent Business Association, said 10% was too low of a margin during the bill’s public hearing Feb. 8.

“For example, my favorite burrito place raised their prices by 20%,” Smith said. “They can’t have in-person dining and this was the only way they could stay in business. Under this new bill they would have broken the law.”

According to Smith, small businesses will be hurt if they can’t increase prices.

Catherine Holm with the Washington Food Industry Association said the 10% mark for grocery stores she worked with was also extremely difficult.

The current version of the bill makes some exceptions for price increases over 10%, but only if they are caused by parallel increases in cost of labor or manufacturing.

Goods protected under the bill include building materials, consumer food items, personal protective equipment and gasoline.

The proposal from the Attorney General follows a nationwide trend to protect consumers following extreme price hikes in goods like hand sanitizer, face masks, and toilet paper during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Seattle Times article in March found that 2-liter bottles of hand sanitizer, normally $7, were being sold for $150.

The Attorney General’s office recorded more than 1,300 complaints of price gouging after Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in March, according to Brittany Gregory, a director within the Attorney General’s office.

“We did see a decrease in complaints over time,” Gregory said, “but that was because we were able to take some action - issue letters and visit businesses.”

Subpoenas, cease-and-desist letters and fines would be added to the AG’s arsenal to combat price gouging under the new bill.

Teresa Green, a representative for the Tacoma fire department, testified to the price gouging her department has been facing.

“We had to pay $60 for a pack of disinfectant wipes at one point,” Green said.

Price gouging also hurt the Coronavirus Relief Fund, as each dollar couldn’t be stretched as far because of necessary protective equipment purchases, according to Green.

The bill’s next stop is an executive session on Feb. 11 in the Senate Law and Justice committee. More information on the bill and protected items can be found at leg.wa.gov.


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