When did $4 become good value for a gallon of gas? [Commentary]

September 22, 2008

The price of a gallon of gasoline was nearly $5.00 just a few short months ago. It has come down in recent weeks, but is spiking again thanks to Hurricane Ike. As gas prices in Connecticut today hover just below $4/gallon, I sense some complacency among legislators and consumers alike. There seems to be a false sense of security that, because gas prices have come down from their all-time highs, we’ve weathered the storm and are ready to move on to the next “issue of the day” – the crumbling housing market, Wall Street’s woes, or the daily bouts of name calling between presidential campaigns.

Not so fast. The record costs of gas, electricity and home heating oil still pose a formidable challenge to working families, small businesses and seniors – and the problem is not going away. Connecticut needs to address its energy problems and there is no time like the present to begin working on a plan.

Gasoline

There are several factors contributing to the high price of gasoline that are beyond the legislature’s control, but that does not mean the state can not take action to lower the price consumers pay at the pump. As I’ve said before, Connecticut has the second highest gas prices in the nation and the highest in the region by far. That’s because our state gas taxes are higher than all of our neighboring states. The State of Connecticut is currently taxing consumers at a clip of nearly 50 cents/gallon. That means the state is profiting more from your fuel purchase than the gas stations, credit card companies and federal government combined!

It’s outrageous. Gas taxes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are substantially lower than what we pay in Connecticut. There is no reason our state can’t be every bit as competitive. It is past time the state of Connecticut cut and cap its gas taxes.

We also need to remain vigilant against price gouging. Fourteen gas stations settled with the Attorney General’s Office for a total of $84,267 in fines for price gouging after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. In the wake of Hurricane Ike, Governor Rell has demanded to look at the books of Cumberland Farms stations because their prices have gone up as much as $.40/gallon. The gas stations claim they are raising prices in accordance with the increases they had to pay at the wholesale level, but the verdict is still out. I applaud Governor Rell and the Attorney General for playing a leadership role in helping to protect gas consumers. If you see signs of potential gas gouging at a station near you, please call the Department of Consumer Protection Hotline at 800-842-2649.

Electricity

As the price of gas has gone up, so too have electric rates. In January, CL&P requested and was granted a rate increase of 4.7%, primarily to cover the increased costs of buying electricity from generators due to skyrocketing oil and natural gas prices. United Illuminating was denied a requested rate increase earlier this year, but has since filed a new notice of intent with the Department of Public Utilities to increase its electricity distribution rate. If approved, the average residential customer’s bill will increase approximately $6/month.

If the price of oil was partly to blame for the initial rate increases, shouldn’t we soon see a commensurate decrease in rates, now that the price of oil has come down? The General Assembly’s Energy Committee must watch this dynamic closely and Connecticut consumers must hold their elected officials feet to the fire to make sure they are performing proper oversight.

Home Heating Fuel

In August, the General Assembly passed a $44 million energy relief package that significantly expands home heating assistance programs and energy conservation tax breaks for low and middle-income families and small businesses. Under the new law, a family of four whose bank accounts and annual incomes total less than $94,000 may qualify to receive a one time benefit of up to $400 for heating their homes this winter. Families of four with incomes and bank accounts totaling less than $31,800 could receive a basic benefit of $885 under the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program (CEAP) and may qualify for additional help in an emergency. This legislation will help thousands of Connecticut families weather the cold winter season, but there is still more work to be done.

Recently the federal government released the remaining $7 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding left in the FY08 account, but Congress has so far failed to increase LIHEAP funding levels for FY09. There are several good bipartisan bills in both the House and Senate, including Congressman Christopher Shays’ (R-Bridgeport) Warm Winter and Cool Summer Act, which would increase LIHEAP by at least $2.5 billion this year. But election year politics are getting in the way. If action isn’t taken soon, Connecticut families who depend on state and federal heating assistance will find themselves faced with unimaginable decisions. We cannot allow this to happen.

For more information and application materials for the multitude of state and federal energy assistance programs and tax incentives available to Connecticut residents and businesses, please visit www.senaterepublicans.ct.gov/energy.

Senator Leonard Fasano represents the 34th Senatorial District, which includes the communities of East Haven, North Haven and Wallingford.