Ward takes up price-gouging push

State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, has taken up a legislative effort — vetoed last year by Gov. Tom Wolf — to loosen the state’s law on price gouging during emergencies.

Ward is the new chief sponsor of the amendment, which had been pushed by Sen. Rich Alloway, R-Franklin, before Alloway announced his departure from the Senate. The bill would set hard limits on the definition of price gouging, and would set a cap on the amount businesses have to pay for overcharging during emergencies.

The state’s price-gouging law enables officials to seek compensation when businesses charge unfairly inflated rates for goods — for example, doubling the price of food or toilet paper as a flood or snowstorm strikes. But some lawmakers, supported by a collection of retail and service-industry groups, have sought looser rules against the practice.

In a memo announcing this year’s effort, Alloway said temporary disaster declarations, like those for winter storms, have sometimes been extended by months, restricting prices long after the immediate effects have ended.

“This prohibition is effective for the duration of the declaration (initially 90 days, but renewable) plus an additional 30 days after termination,” Alloway said. “This is an excessively long period compared to other state laws and has resulted in situations where pricing restrictions from a disaster declaration for a winter snowstorm remained in place until June or beyond.”

Alloway pointed to the state’s ongoing opioid disaster emergency, which Wolf declared over a year ago. The disaster empowers the government to stop gouging statewide indefinitely — a step too far, according to the amendment’s sponsors.

“This situation brings into sharp focus the need to amend the law so that its restraints on commerce apply only to the extent necessary,” Alloway said.

The amendments would limit per-business penalties to $25,000, prevent individuals from seeking separate compensation from alleged gougers and limit price restrictions to 15 days with a handful of extensions.

Alloway cited support from groups like the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Pennsylvania Manu­facturers Association.

With Ward now listed as the primary sponsor, the bill was referred last week to the state Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. But its chances of becoming law this session appear slim.

Wolf has resisted past efforts to change the law. Last fall, he vetoed a bill restricting the gouging rules despite overwhelming support in the Legislature.

“The legislation encourages the prices of consumer goods and services to be increased prior to a state of disaster emergency being declared,” Wolf said at the time. “This legislation undermines the purpose of the act by reducing the standard for determining an unconscionable excessive price and shortens the period of this prohibition.”

Toomey stands

against Trump tariffs

President Donald Trump’s trade wars face a new wave of opposition from within his own party, with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., challenging Trump’s authority to unilaterally tax imports.

Toomey, joined by several Democrats and free-market-oriented Republicans, reintroduced legislation last week that would require congressional approval for the president’s “national security” tariffs.

Trump has promoted the tariffs — taxes on imports like steel — as a means to rebuild American industry and challenge the trade power of rivals like China. But the tariffs have made life harder for consumers and for Pennsylvania companies that process steel and other imported materials, Toomey said.

“I’ve seen, first-hand, the damage these taxes are causing across Pennsylvania,” Toomey said in a written statement on the new bill, which includes cosponsors from both parties. Scores of Pennsylvania-based companies that process imported steel are among the thousands that have formally requested relief from Trump’s tariffs, Toomey said.

At issue is the legal method Trump has used to issue the tariffs. The president attributes the taxes to national security needs — an argument that allows him to circumvent Congress, but which senators like Toomey find suspect.

“Tariffs on steel and aluminum imported into the United States are taxes paid by American consumers,” Toomey said. “The imposition of these taxes, under the false pretense of national security … is weakening our economy, threatening American jobs, and eroding our credibility with other nations.”

Toomey’s bill would require congressional approval for Trump’s tariffs, and would empower the Department of Defense to determine whether national security needs warrant new import taxes.

A similar effort last year ended with a non-binding resolution calling on Trump to get congressional approval. But with the midterms over and some Republicans feeling free to criticize the president, Toomey’s new attempt could gain traction.

Bill would pay biz

for recovery jobs

With the state’s opioid disaster declaration stretching into its second year, Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, and a handful of allies in both parties are recommending a new program to move recovering addicts into the workforce.

After announcing plans in December for a new bill, Langerholc released his plan last week: A state-funded program that would use job and training agencies to move those dealing with addiction toward new jobs.

Approved companies that hire the workers would get $1,250 for each recovering employee they keep on staff near full-time hours for at least 13 weeks. The so-called “recovery to work” program would target the counties hit hardest by the opioid epidemic and partner with businesses in high-demand industries.

The bill would direct lawmakers to set aside at least $3 million for the program.

Langerholc proposed a similar program during the last session; it was never taken up for a vote. With co-sponsors including Ward and others in both parties, it awaits a hearing in the Labor and Industry Committee.

“Pennsylvania is heading in the right direction with our continued attention to this serious epidemic,” Langerholc said in December. “As we continue to focus on identifying risk-factors, treating those with serious substance use disorders and working to end the epidemic in the Commonwealth, we need to provide options for the future of those who we are helping.”