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Effort to repeal Utah’s price-gouging law stalls in Senate committee

Sen. Jake Anderegg’s SB74 doesn’t advance, but could resurface in other price-gouging bill debates

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The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would completely repeal Utah’s price gouging law during an emergency didn’t find traction on Monday, but it’s not necessarily dead.

Sen. Jake Anderegg’s SB74 would, in one broad stroke, repeal Utah’s Price Controls During Emergencies Act. He sought the measure after fielding complaints from businesses that grappled with consumer protection complaints after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Many of those complaints, Anderegg said, weren’t because of price gouging, but because businesses were dealing with “disgruntled” customers frustrated with price increases because of a shrinking labor force or supply chain. Those complaints resulted in big costs and headaches for those businesses, he said, and for an issue he argued shouldn’t involve government.

“I’m a free market guy,” Anderegg, R-Lehi, told the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Monday. “I believe in free market principles, and I believe the economy adjusts to meet the need of an expanding or contracting marketplace.”

Anderegg said he decided to run SB74 last summer after receiving “several complaints” from business owners whose costs “increased drastically” due to the pandemic, “and members of the public felt like they were price gouging” so they filed consumer protection complaints with the state.

“The law being used, in my opinion, was throwing insult on top of injury for some of these businesses whose costs were increasing because of a shrinking labor force or shrinking supply chains,” Anderegg said.

But lawmakers on the Senate Business and Labor Committee voted unanimously to move on with their agenda without taking action on SB74. Some expressed concern that repealing the law could open the door to price gouging without consequences.

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, called it “spooky” and a “knee-jerk reaction” to problems that arose due to the pandemic.

Stephen Foxley, director of government relations for the insurance firm Regence BlueCross BlueShield, urged lawmakers not to support the bill, saying some providers have charged over $1,600 for a COVID-19 test, which usually costs between $70 to $150.

“I am a free market person,” Foxley said. “I understand that argument. But sometimes there are market failures.”

Foxley said Utah needs “some sort of price-gouging law so that when there are bad actors like this, they’re held into account.”

The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah tweeted SB74 “seems like the kind of bill you’d love if you were, say ... a cartoon villain.”

“We all lived through a year where people hoarded toilet paper, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and masks,” Alliance for a Better Utah tweeted. “The last thing we need is a law that allows selfish people to exploit their neighbors, making a buck off of someone else’s crisis.”

Anderegg didn’t seem surprised when he was met with pushback. But he urged lawmakers to at least keep the bill in the committee’s control, arguing it should be part of the discussion as other more “nuanced” bills dealing with price gouging come before the panel.

At least two other bills have been filed dealing with changes to Utah’s price-gouging law. One, HB157, tinkers with the definition of “excessive price” and specifies that “total cost” does not include an amount that incorporates an ongoing cost to operate a business that is not directly associated with a good or service. Another, SB86, would specify that a business cannot be investigated for price gouging unless the business receives three or more credible complaints.

Anderegg acknowledged that those bills are likely to have a better chance of advancing in the Legislature, but he still pushed for his bill, arguing markets “adjust” on their own when there is competition and “government intervention should really not be involved.”

Anderegg, who has at times called himself a “borderline Libertarian Republican,” argued the pros would by and large “outweigh” the cons of fully repealing Utah’s law on price controls.

“I think the existing statute is just as problematic as the full repeal,” Anderegg said.