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    Looking on the Bright Side in the South

    Job-seeking goes online in Georgia, Alabama's ban on below-cost gas pricing survives another year, South Carolina looks like it will stave off a rise in cigarette taxes, and enlightenment reins in Mississippi as it adopts a fresh approach to managing pseudoephedrine sales.

    Things are looking good in the South as job-seeking goes online in Georgia and Alabama's ban on below-cost gas pricing survives another year. South Carolina looks like it will stave off a rise in cigarette taxes, and enlightenment reins in Mississippi as it adopts a fresh approach to managing pseudoephedrine sales.

    There's a great win-win situation in Georgia, where the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS) has launched an employment Web site that provides Association members with a pool of job applicants to choose from, while giving job-seekers the chance to apply for a position online at no cost to them.

    Here's how it works: Job applicants go to www.gahiring.com, click on Job Opportunities in the main menu, and choose from job listings for sales associates, assistant store managers and store managers in dozens of locations throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Tennessee. GACS members, meanwhile, can log in to review data on applicants.

    “It's a great service,” said Jim Tudor, GACS president, “because it's paperless, available 24/7, it lowers the cost of recruiting, it's free to job seekers, and Association members pay only for files selected for review. If a job applicant is unavailable or if an Association member is not satisfied for any reason, a credit refund is given.”

    GACS is working in partnership with Candidate Resources Inc. (CRI) to manage the Web site. Information on CRI is available at www.criw.com.

    South Carolina is twice blessed, sporting the third-lowest gas tax in the nation and a $700 million surplus in its state budget. But someone must have stirred the ire of the gods and made them jealous, for both enviable positions are under siege.

    "The state legislature has already spent the surplus on paper," reports Sims Floyd, executive director of the South Carolina Petroleum Marketers Association, "and now some state senators are talking about raising our gas tax seven cents, which will bring it to 23 cents per gallon."

    Why, one may ask, would a legislative body need to raise taxes while sitting on a surplus?

    "Because," notes Floyd, "the budget doesn't take care of the state's secondary roads, which are in need of repair, so they're turning to the beleaguered motorist to pick up the bill. The problem is that 92 percent of the state's Department of Transportation budget already comes from our gas tax. It's just not fair to go after car owners again; legislators have to look elsewhere for the money."

    The good news is that prospects look dim for the tax increase to go through. The Senate is considering it, but the House is opposed, so right now it's only a dim blip on the horizon.

    Alabama's law banning below-cost gas pricing defeated an attempt to repeal it last year, so the Petroleum and Convenience Marketers of Alabama (PCMA) held its breath when the legislature convened this year. Was there going to be another attempt to wipe the law off the books and open the marketplace to gasoline as a loss-leader, threatening the small retailer's already slim margins?

    “The good news is that it never happened,” reports Arleen Alexander, PCMA president. “The law's been on Alabama's books for over 20 years, serving as a model for other states, so I guess it's just too strong to knock over.”

    Alabama couldn't stave off a pseudoephedrine control bill, however, and that did get through the legislature. “We managed to keep it from being classified as a Schedule V substance,” said Alexander, “but other restrictions have been imposed.”

    Tablets must be kept behind the counter; purchasers are required to show photo IDs and sign a register; there is a limit on the amount sold per transaction; and retailers are required to register with the Alcohol Beverage Control Board.

    "The bill just passed so it's too soon to say how many retailers will live with the restrictions or simply not carry the products," said Alexander. "In either case, it's going to hurt sales, and the sad part is that the law might not do any good, since pseudoephedrine abusers won't be deterred very much by it."

    Finally, in the struggle to reconcile useful pseudoephedrine products with their role in making methamphetamine, Mississippi is taking an enlightened approach.

    It has already passed a bill limiting pseudoephedrine product sales to two packages per transaction, but, as everyone agrees, that will have only a limited effect. So Mississippi is reinforcing its legislation with a series of meetings around the state -- five in all -- to educate and train store clerks and others in the handling of products containing pseudoephedrine, and how to deal with purchasers.

    The precise wording of the bill, however, hasn't been finalized. "Some packages of pseudoephedrine products contain only two tablets," noted Jerry Wilkerson, executive director of the Mississippi Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, "while others have much more, so clarification is needed as to what 'two packages' amounts to. We should have the answers soon."

    Also on Mississippi's legislative agenda is a cigarette tax increase, with one bill calling for a 50-cent increase per pack and another adding a dollar. The current tax is 18 cents, so both measures represent substantial raises.

    Wilkerson feels that neither bill will pass. "The House passed the 50-cent increase, but the Senate is cool to it," said Wilkerson. "And the dollar raise doesn't look like it's even going to be brought up in this legislative session. So we're safe -- for now."

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