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    Wis. Coalition Seeks Gas Price Law Repeal

    They say it hurts drivers; producers warn of effect on small retailers.

    MILWAUKEE -- In 2001, an effort to repeal the Unfair Sales Act, which requires gas stations to charge at least 6 percent more than the current wholesale price, was defeated in the Wisconsin Legislature.

    A newly re-formed group called the Coalition for Lower Gas Prices chose the Labor Day weekend, when many motorists travel - not to mention motorcyclists this year - to call for a repeal of what is often called the minimum markup law, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    Roger Putnam, the group's spokesman, said members would push for legislation this fall.

    On the other side are petroleum companies and the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketing Association, which successfully opposed the repeal in 2003 by arguing it protects small retailers who could be driven out of business by large retailers with below-cost prices.

    Putnam said the minimum markup "adds insult and even higher prices to the injury by costing consumers more than $50 million every year." But repeal opponents say the savings will be short-term, and that if small retailers are driven out of business that big companies will gouge consumers.

    Repeal opponents said that more than 30 states have some kind of minimum markup law, but supporters argue that states without the law have not seen the end of small gas station operators.

    Putnam called his group a "grass-roots effort" whose members include veterans groups and the American Automobile Association. But the group also includes transportation companies such as Schneider Trucking and Wal-Mart, a company some analysts argue wants to use low-price gasoline to lure customers to its new parking lot gas pumps.

    The issue has arisen in many states, with independent gas station operators and petroleum companies having some success portraying themselves as the little guys battling mighty Wal-Mart. But in Wisconsin, these little guys have been frequent contributors to legislators: The database of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign lists some 17 petroleum companies and associations as significant contributors to legislators.

    Putnam said his group would not try to match the opposition's campaign contributions. But his coalition has already hired six lobbyists. In the first six months of 2003, the coalition spent $68,000 on lobbyists, the report said.

    The exact amount spent by the petroleum groups on lobbying this issue was not available.

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