Thursday, August 10, 2006

Doyle Gas tax Pander -- Too Little, Too Late


Doyle defends action amid criticism

By STEVEN WALTERS and DON WALKER
swalters@journalsentinel.com

Posted: Aug. 9, 2006

Madison - Up for re-election in less than three months, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle saw a political chance this week to woo angry consumers by trying to show that he's on their side on the potent election-year issue of soaring fuel prices.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Doyle said he didn't know if he could tell state regulators to not enforce the minimum markup law on ethanol-based gasoline. The law, written decades ago when all gas was totally derived from oil, requires a 9.18% markup from wholesalers to retailers. His lawyers were studying the issue, the governor said Tuesday morning.

A few hours later, he ordered state regulators not to enforce the minimum markup law on ethanol blends.

Between Doyle's late-morning uncertainty and his mid-afternoon action, his Republican challenger for governor, U.S. Rep. Mark Green of Green Bay, issued a news release that challenged him on the issue.

Were the two - Green's challenge and Doyle's swift response - related?

Doyle said Wednesday that Green's statement had nothing to do with his order, because he has been opposed to the minimum markup law since he was Dane County district attorney from 1977 until 1983.

"I don't know anything about opponents' actions," Doyle said.

As a district attorney, he said: "They would come in and ask me to enforce the law and I'd say, 'You mean you want me to go ask a jury to convict somebody for selling a product for less?' "

He said that he acted legally and that anyone who thought otherwise could sue to resolve that question.

"I can decide whether or not the state is going to use its enforcement authority to proceed," he said. "We've got five Big Oil companies that are taking unconscionable profits from people and they have no real legitimate competition."

Doyle also appeared to suggest that enforcing the minimum markup law on fuel without ethanol should not be a priority. "We haven't been using much enforcement authority on regular gasoline on this law, either," he said.

Some Republicans saw politics in Doyle's actions.

"The governor had an epiphany," said Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), who had wanted Doyle to exempt one type of ethanol-blended fuel - called E-85 and usable only in specially equipped vehicles - from the minimum markup law.

Schultz said that he was delighted by Doyle's order but noted that the broad scope of it - including not only E-85 but also the more popular E-10, a 10% ethanol blend that is sold statewide - was a sign that he's worried about his re-election.

"I think the governor knew he was in deep trouble in the Milwaukee metro area," Schultz added. "He was hoping what he did would turn around his fortunes in southeast Wisconsin."

Little effect on prices

If Doyle and his campaign advisers expected immediate help Wednesday where it matters most to consumers - at the gas pumps - they didn't get it.

Although some Wisconsin retailers cut the price of unleaded regular slightly Wednesday, the owner of one convenience store - the Woodman's grocery on Madison's east side - said the reductions were in response to competitors, and not to the governor's order.

"What the governor says publicly has nothing to do with anything in reality," said Phil Woodman. "I've talked to my lawyers, and they haven't got a clue as to what the governor did and what it means."

Bill Ball, the owner of a BP station in Phillips in northern Wisconsin, also doubted that the governor's action would cut his gas-pump price, which was $3.25 for regular unleaded on Wednesday.

"Doyle's order had no effect on my prices today, and I don't see it having any effect in the near future, either," Ball said. "I say that because most of the time gasoline with 10% ethanol cost more from my supplier."

Although Ball said he voted for Doyle in 2002, he also linked Doyle's ethanol order to the campaign.

"Is the governor that ignorant to what is really going on, or is he just using this to fool people into thinking he is doing something about gas prices while he pads his re-election war chest?" Ball said.

Ball said convenience store owners such as himself are more squeezed than ever.

"This year has been a very tough year for us since, as most economists will tell you, when the price of a product jumps, (profit) margins go down, and that is exactly what has happened in the gasoline retail business," Ball said.

"Our piece of the pie has gotten smaller, while the oil companies and the credit card companies are making more then ever."

Richard Shaten, a faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who has studied ethanol, said Doyle's order could cut the price of ethanol-based fuel along borders where retailers compete with states without minimum markup laws.

But any potential price cuts on ethanol blends in Wisconsin could be offset by the national pinch caused by the shutdown of a major Alaskan pipeline - a pinch he said could add 25 cents to 40 cents to each gallon of fuel.

Shaten also saw politics in Doyle's decision.

"He does need to fortify his base, which includes the alternative-energy people, the ethanol people, the farm community" that grows the corn used to make ethanol, Shaten said.

"It's kind of like a no-brainer for him to wave the sword against the evil oil companies," he said. "I would assume that anybody with political savvy would take the opportunity to show that they're just not going to sit there and do nothing."

On Tuesday, Doyle and Green agreed on one thing: the need to help Wisconsin's ethanol industry grow. By Wednesday, officials of both campaigns were blasting each other over high gas prices.

"While Big Oil has driven gas prices through the roof, Mark Green has rewarded them with billion-dollar tax breaks," said Doyle campaign spokesman Anson Kaye, criticizing Green's voting record in Congress.

"Mark Green's been fattening up on Big Oil money for so long he might as well be on Exxon's payroll," Kaye added.

That's not true, said Green campaign manager Mark Graul. Green was vacationing with his family and was not available for comment.

"There's nothing in Mark Green's record that has been anything but making sure that Wisconsin consumers get a good price for their gasoline," Graul said.

"Jim Doyle has received tens of thousands of dollars from the very same Big Oil companies," Graul said. "The Doyle campaign has a problem telling the truth."

Steven Walters reported for this story from Madison and Don Walker from West Allis.

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