Gas cap might be running on empty
ENGLAND in 1266. Parliament starts regulating the price of bread and beer, and government has been dipping its hand into the marketplace ever since.
Currying the favor of bread-eaters and ale drinkers has been the province of government for at least the last 740 years. If government can't hold the line on the price of necessities, then what good is government?
Hawaii's Legislature joined the list of governments attempting to regulate the marketplace in 2002 by passing a law to cap the wholesale price of gasoline sold to retailers.
After changing the law in 2003 and 2004, the controls went into effect last year and the pump started sucking air.
Critics warned that it wasn't natural for government to control the price of goods, that competition would drive the market, not the votes on the floor of the state House, but supporters saw an easy political lay-up and hurried it into law in time for the 2002 elections.
Hawaii's senior Sen. Dan Inouye noted that "our state's legislators took a bold step." Inouye concluded that the gas cap lowered prices last year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed oil facilities in the South. Tough-talking former Gov. Ben Cayetano said, "Republican legislative leaders pontificate shamelessly that gas prices in Hawaii should be left to the competitive forces of the 'free market' when they know -- or should know -- that even the oil companies themselves agree that there is no free market."
Finally, Hawaii's Democrats used the gas cap as the blunt instrument of choice in two elections, claiming that Republicans who opposed the cap were stooges of the oil industry. The elections of 2002 and 2004 were all about promises of lower gasoline prices.
Now comes the election of 2006, after the disastrous hurricane season of 2005 and after gasoline prices went higher than a Honolulu property tax bill.
Now the Democrats are hearing footsteps. Although supporters say the Public Utilities Commission was supposed to be riding the gasoline price regulations and failed to do so, a majority in the state House want to suspend the price cap.
Last year Sen. Donna Kim, the Senate vice president, toyed with the idea of letting Gov. Linda Lingle repeal the cap if she didn't think it was working, and Lingle said she would do so in a flash -- but the idea never took hold.
Led by Reps. Joe Souki and Kirk Caldwell, House Democrats are moving this week to get out of the gas price regulation business.
The on-the-record reason is that the PUC didn't do enough, and prices would be controlled by making the oil companies report their earnings and profits. The Democrats privately fear the public sentiment is steadily growing against the gas cap.
The gas cap was about lowering prices and prices went up, so who wants more of that?
With the Democrats wavering on their signature issue, the only question left is how well Linda Lingle can hit a slow pitch.
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at email@example.com