By Peter Hall
Citing skyrocketing prices for fuel and consumer goods while corporate profits soar, House Democrats on Wednesday held a hearing on corporate price hikes they say exacerbate the inflation crisis.
Members of the House Democratic Policy Committee heard testimony on the impact that the consolidation of industries, such as the energy sector, controlled by a handful of companies, was having on Pennsylvania consumers.
They also highlighted a trio of bills aimed at preventing monopolistic practices.
“The act of price gouging is an unpatriotic act and it needs to be called out,” Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, a Democrat from Luzerne County, said.
The hearing followed a series of Republican Policy Committee hearings on inflation that focused on regulatory changes that would lower consumer prices and drive investment and economic growth in Pennsylvania.
The Stop Price Fixing Act, sponsored by Rep. Nick Pisciottano, a Democrat from Allegheny County, would enhance the authority of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office to investigate and prosecute price-fixing. It would create protections against retaliation and incentives for whistleblowers who report anti-competitive activity.
The bill would also address decades of court decisions that have placed a high burden of evidence on plaintiffs in lawsuits against companies accused of collusion by directing courts to treat certain facts and actions as prima facie evidence of collusion.
The End Gas Price Gouging Act, sponsored by House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from Philadelphia, and Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, a Democrat from Erie County, would prohibit gas stations from increasing prices more than once every 24 hours, as five other states have done to prevent abusive price increases.
The Pennsylvania Open Markets Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Sara Innamorato, a Democrat from Allegheny County, and Pisciottano, would modernize the state’s anti-trust laws by increasing the attorney general’s authority to investigate and prosecute violations.
The committee heard testimony from Lee Hepner, legal counsel for the San Francisco-based American Economic Liberties Project, who said inflation is a major concern for Pennsylvania residents. He noted a Suffolk University/USA Today Network poll in which the number of Pennsylvanians who said the economy is in poor shape increased to 45%, compared to 12% in 2018.
Hepner said that while external influences such as the war in Ukraine have driven inflation, the problem is made worse by companies that are recording record profits at the same time as the price of raw materials has increased.
The consolidation of major industries increases opportunities for collusion because it is easier for a small number of companies to agree to raise prices and reduces the chance that a competitor will go against them, Hepner said.
The Stop Price Fixing Act addresses judicial rulings that have rendered existing antitrust laws nearly unenforceable by requiring victims of price-fixing to present highly-detailed evidence before they have had a chance to investigate and discover it.
On the House floor Wednesday afternoon state Rep. Austin Davis, a Democrat from Allegheny County, urged members to support the slate of legislation, noting that across-the-board, price increases forced residents to make stressful decisions between needed purchases and sent retired people back into the workforce to make ends meet.
“I can tell you who isn’t feeling as stressed and that’s the corporations,” Davis, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.