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Hartford - Members of the Connecticut Senate continued a three-year effort to extend a ban on severe weather price gouging to services such as snow removal, with proponents expressing hope they can persuade the House of Representatives to finally pass the bill.
The legislation passed the Senate on Wednesday on a 31-5 vote, marking the third year in a row it has passed in that chamber. It has died in the House due to inaction during each of the last two legislative sessions.
"This year I'm optimistic on the third try," said Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the General Assembly's General Law Committee, adding that the state has seen four instances of extreme weather since the first year the bill was proposed. Doyle said state legislators have heard complaints from constituents about how they've been overcharged for services following these storms, making it urgent for lawmakers to extend the ban this session.
"It's clear consumers are getting ripped off," he said. "I think it's an appropriate role for government."
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, the committee's ranking Republican senator, said often these instances of price gouging occur when people are vulnerable and worried about their homes during and after storms.
"People panic about protecting their property when something like this happens," he said. "It's those few unscrupulous folks that take advantage of people in the emergency mode, if you will."
The House now has until June 5, the last day of the legislative session, to act on the bill.
The General Assembly last passed anti-price gouging legislation 27 years ago, following Hurricane Gloria, said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who served as a legislator at the time. That law prohibits anyone from increasing the retail price of any goods when the governor or president issues a disaster or emergency declaration.
The bill under consideration this year bars someone from selling vital goods or services for an "unconscionably excessive price." Such services could include lodging, snow removal, flood abatement and post-storm cleanup or repair services. If a price is deemed excessive, various steps can be taken. For example, courts may issue restraining orders, award punitive damages and impose civil penalties. The state's Department of Consumer Protection commissioner can order restitution in cases involving less than $5,000 or ask the state attorney general to seek injunctive relief.
But Sen. Robert Kane, R-Watertown, doubted the need for the legislation.
"Do we have to protect people from every single thing that comes around the corner?" he asked, questioning whether price-gouging was really happening in Connecticut.
But Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, spoke about how one of her neighbors who was snowed in during the February snowstorm needed to get out of her house for medical reasons. A snow removal contractor charged the neighbor $1,000, Slossberg said.
Slossberg said the neighbor paid because her life was in danger.
"The reality is," she said, "you do have people who are unscrupulous who will take advantage during difficult storm occasions."