For nearly a year, Minnesota consumers have been protected against pandemic price gouging because of an executive order issued by Gov. Tim Walz.
That may soon expire, though, leaving Minnesotans without critical legal protections afforded a majority of Americans. At least 35 states offer such protections, typically during natural disasters or declared emergencies, or for essentials such as fuel. Minnesota has been an outlier so far, but that should end.
Under a bill proposed by state Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, and backed by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, essential goods such as food, water, fuel, health care, medical supplies and shelter would be protected from "unconscionably excessive" price increases during a declared state of emergency.
The bill narrowly targets extreme pricing that "profits off the misery and desperation of people" who have few other options, Stephenson told an editorial writer. The threshold would be reached, he said, when the price for an essential consumer good exceeded a 30% bump within seven days compared with pre-emergency prices.
"We think retailers should absolutely be able to make a profit," Stephenson said. "And the majority of retailers would not engage in this kind of behavior. What this does is create some accountability for the few bad actors out there who would take advantage of a situation."
Why is this necessary? When the pandemic started, it didn't take long for hundreds of complaints about price gouging on essentials such as food staples, toilet paper and cleaning supplies to hit the attorney general's office.
The executive order allowed Ellison to take enforcement action, and some 20 companies agreed to bring pricing back in line. One egg producer that was found to have raised prices 150% during the pandemic reached a settlement in which it agreed to limit prices to 20% of pre-pandemic levels.
Ellison's investigators at the time reported seeing a 36-pack of toilet paper selling for $80 and Purell hand soap refills priced at $42 instead of the normal $16.
"We would not have been able to protect consumers if not for the emergency order," Ellison told an editorial writer. The protections Stephenson proposes have long been needed, Ellison said, to provide Minnesotans with basic consumer protections in times of crisis.
If what happened in the pandemic weren't reason enough, we have Texas to remind us. When winter storms there created a fuel and water crisis, the prices of food, bottled water, natural gas and gasoline all shot up dramatically.
Hotel rooms were going for a $1,000 a night. Texas, however, has strict laws that allow the attorney general to go after price gougers with fines as heavy as $250,000.
Minnesotans deserve to be protected from exorbitant pricing during a crisis — whether it's a winter storm or a raging pandemic — and not just by executive order, but with protections that have the enduring power of a state statute.