News: Quick Takes

Attorney general uses ongoing ’emergency’ in announcement on price gouging

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein is using Gov. Roy Cooper’s never-ending state of emergency in encouraging residents to report so-called price gouging related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Stein, in a news release, says his office has heard, albeit anecdotally, that price gouging may be occurring when people look to buy at-home COVID tests. 

“Filing a complaint with our office … helps alert us to price gouging concerns and gives us the necessary information to better review them,” the release says.

But one regulatory expert says Stein’s pronouncement presumes people are hopelessly compelled to buy things they believe are too expensive and in need of government to rescue them. 

Further, says the John Locke Foundation’s Jon Sanders, Stein and Cooper have a history of reneging on promises that would truly help consumers.

“It’s too bad Stein’s concern for consumers didn’t extend to electricity rates as he had promised,” said Sanders, Locke research editor and senior fellow in regulatory studies.

“Instead, after declaring victory and ‘a major win for electricity customers’ in a lawsuit over coal ash cleanup costs, Stein suddenly settled with Duke Energy to stick consumers with the bulk of the estimated $4 billion cleanup.”

The state’s price gouging law is tied to Cooper’s ongoing emergency, which began in spring 2020 at the start of the pandemic. The newly passed N.C. budget includes a provision reining in a governor’s power by implementing limits and requiring concurrence or other action from the Council of State and lawmakers.

Cooper, a Democrat, issued his first executive order of the pandemic in March 2020, at the time implementing an interminable state of emergency, a move typically reserved for hurricanes and other natural disasters. Many states, even those whose legislative and executive branches are of the same party, passed laws similar to that in North Carolina, which, however, won’t be effective until 2023.

North Carolina’s price gouging statute, which prohibits charging too much for goods and services during a crisis, falls under Executive Order 245 and stays in effect until April 5, Stein says in the release. 

“In some cases, businesses and industries that are heavily impacted by a crisis have a reasonable need to increase prices, but they should disclose these increases and allow people to make informed purchasing decisions,” the release says. “Businesses and sellers cannot, however, unreasonably raise the price of goods or services to profit during a crisis.”