So, some of our politicians want a new state law against price gouging. While I'm not arguing that consumers who paid $3.99 per gallon a couple of weeks ago to fill their tanks didn't pay a pretty penny, my guess is that those station owners will pay dearly in the weeks and months to come as motorists with long memories of that hot day in August just drive on by that particular station.
I'm more concerned about how price gouging affects those of us who can't simply "drive on by." I'm talking about taxpayers and the gouging we take from government, not just during emergencies, but in perpetuity.
Sticking with the transportation theme for a moment, consider the proposed light rail system for the Valley. For every rider that climbs aboard and pays $1.25, the taxpayers will chip in $10 or so, whether they ride it or not. It makes $3.99 for a gallon of gas sound pretty cheap, doesn't it?
And keep in mind that this won't happen just during emergencies. It will happen every time a rider boards the trolley for as long as this expensive boondoggle is around. As a side note, telling local taxpayers that they aren't being gouged for this outdated project because the federal government will pay half the cost of construction is akin to saying that paying half price for buggy whips is now a good deal.
How about education? Any gouging of the taxpayers going on here? It depends a lot on where you live in Arizona. I happen to live in Mesa, and my children attend the Mesa Public Schools. For the average of roughly $6,000 the Mesa Public Schools spends to educate a child, local and state taxpayers get a pretty good deal.
But what about the Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD), which, by virtue of a desegregation order, can levy a higher local tax and spend nearly double? Do kids in the Phoenix Union High School District get nearly twice the education kids in Mesa do? Not according to graduation rates, dropout rates, test scores and myriad other objective measures.
If you're thinking that PUHSD has no choice but to spend the extra money because of the desegregation order, think again. A couple of years ago a federal judge removed PUHSD from the desegregation order. The district successfully begged to have the judge's order (ostensibly in their favor) stayed so that they could remain under the old order and continue to levy a higher local property tax without voter approval. Price gouging? You be the judge.
There are also countless small-ticket items at the state level that continually gouge taxpayers. A recent Goldwater Institute report revealed a "Wellness Education" program for state employees, where taxpayer-subsidized classes are offered on such essentials as: "Awareness through Movement, Deskercises, I'm OK, You're OK, Surviving the Supermarket," and "The Ups and Downs of Everyday Living."
And if gas prices spike dramatically again, our state employees will be well prepared after taking the taxpayer-subsidized class entitled "Walking Basics." You'll stop laughing when you realize that you, the taxpayer, are gouged for part of the cost of these classes.
The premise upon which certain politicians are calling for new price gouging statutes, of course, is that the free market is inherently evil and must be bridled by virtuous elected officials.
I've been an elected official for nearly three years and I can honestly tell you that I've yet to have an epiphany about the proper price of gas, or for that matter, any other commodity available on the street. It's just not something that comes with the job. In fact, given our track record at gouging the public, we politicians are the last people the public ought to trust in setting prices.
So the next time you pass the station that was charging almost $4 for a gallon of gas, feel free to drive on by. But the next time you hear a politician tell you that the private sector needs government help in setting prices for anything, put your proverbial pedal to the metal and don't look back. There are just some things you don't want your money to buy.
-Jeff Flake, a Republican, is a Congressman representing Arizona's District 6.