TRENTON - With gas prices increasing, New Jersey lawmakers moved yesterday toward toughening gas-gouging penalties that haven't been changed since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
An Assembly committee released a Senate-approved bill to boost the state's penalty to as much as $3,000 per violation, compared with current law - set in 1938 - that brings fines as low as $50.
The bill can now be considered by the full Assembly. It was approved, 35-0, by the Senate in February.
The action comes as the average price for regular gas in New Jersey averaged $2.88 a gallon, up about 25 cents from a month ago, according to AAA. The costliest region in the state was in the Trenton area, where regular gas averaged $2.92 a gallon, AAA reported.
Nationally, regular gas averaged $3.07 a gallon yesterday.
"This bill actually comes in at a perfect time," said Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, (D., Hudson), a bill sponsor.
New Jersey law provides penalties ranging from $50 to $200 for each violation of state gas-pricing law. The proposal released yesterday would increase those fines to $1,500 to $3,000.
The state's gas-gouging law makes it illegal to display and charge different fuel prices and change the selling price more than once in any 24-hour period, among other things.
"As the price of gas continues to climb, we need to ensure that greedy and opportunistic individuals don't take it upon themselves to make a costly situation even worse," said another bill sponsor, Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D., Union).
The highest average gas price in the state - $3.18 a gallon - occurred in 2005 during the Labor Day weekend after Hurricane Katrina. State inspectors visited 400 stations and found 100 alleged violations.
The state sued major oil companies for violating state fuel pricing laws. It reached settlements with Amerada Hess, BP Products North America and Sunoco in which the companies agreed to pay the state about $1 million total.
Eric DeGesero, executive vice president of the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey, said his group didn't oppose the proposed law, but asked legislators to overhaul all state rules on fuel pricing, including how consolidation of major oil companies affects competition.