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Originally published Tuesday, September 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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The bogeyman at the gas pump

Gas price gouging is the new bogeyman. Across the country and in Congress, officials are peering into shadows and lifting bed skirts to...

GAS price gouging is the new bogeyman.

Across the country and in Congress, officials are peering into shadows and lifting bed skirts to shine a light on whether startling gas-price increases are legitimate. Some states without anti-gas-gouging laws are considering passing them.

The concern and attention are legitimate. As prices increased after Hurricane Katrina, gas in Georgia hit an astonishing $6 a gallon before the governor invoked his state's anti-gouging law that limits gas-price increases.

In Washington state, which doesn't get much gas from the besieged Gulf of Mexico, gas prices also rose to around $3, although the prices are softening. Was this trend a legal market response to scarcity or the result of opportun-istic suppliers illegally colluding with each other to push prices higher?

Hard to say. But Democratic governors from eight states, including Washington and Oregon, urged an extensive investigation, citing a University of Wisconsin economist's study that the price of crude oil holding at $65 a barrel does not support $3-per-gallon gasoline.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell was moved by anecdotal stories of gas-station operators ordered to raise prices even before Katrina hit land. She introduced a bill to reduce the temptation for oil companies to take advantage in an emergency. And Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon wants to expand investigative powers for the Federal Trade Commission, which already has launched a probe into improper market manipulation.

Scrutiny is good public policy. The hikes have blown holes in the budget of transportation-dependent business and governments. Washington State Ferries already boosted its fuel budget for the 2005-07 budget cycle by 48 percent — to $86.3 million. And every school district with a fleet of buses will have to refigure its budget too.

Illegal activities that constitute gas gouging are hard to define and harder to prove. But, especially with the threat of more weather disruption in the Gulf's oil production, the halogen searchlight of public attention can do wonders for eliminating the temptation.

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