Suffolk Closeup: Cash, credit prices and a gas bill defeated

10/14/2014 5:00 AM |


I should have been suspicious last month driving into a gas station off the Long Island Expressway to fill up. I’d written a column in May about the effort of Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) to require gas stations to make clearer the difference between the cash and credit prices of the fuel they sell.

I inserted my credit card and noticed on the pump a difference between the cash and credit prices — about which there was no clue on the big sign in front of the station. So I stopped pumping at 53 cents.

Mr. Schneiderman’s bill got its start when he filled up in a credit card transaction and then got the news that instead of the $3.67 a gallon price posted on the sign outside the station, he’d been charged $4.65 a gallon, a whopping 98 cents a gallon difference.

The column I wrote quoted Mr. Schneiderman as remembering how “I went in to see the attendant and he said, ‘That’s the price for using a credit card. People complain to me all the time about it. I can’t do anything about it.’” Mr. Schneiderman said he replied, “I can.”

He checked out other gas stations and found many charging in the neighborhood of $1 extra a gallon for use of a credit card.

He indeed tried to do something about it, writing a bill titled: “A Local Law to Provide Truthful Advertising at Gasoline Stations.” He made changes in it after several legislators weighed in. It ended up requiring that a gas station “which charges consumers a different price for gasoline based on the consumer’s payment method shall not solely advertise the cash price of gasoline on its roadside signage.

Operators shall display either the highest price per gallon charged … at least as prominently as any discounted price offered on such signage.” Stations where the difference was less than five percent would be exempt.

Yet in a vote in September, the bill was defeated, with only six legislators voting for it and 11 against. Key to the loss? The Long Island Gas Retailers Association that “lobbied heavily against the bill from the very beginning,” said Mr. Schneiderman last week. “It won this fight. I think the consumer lost.”

The legislation received some strong support from varied entities. The Long Island Building Trades Council and Long Island Federation of Labor were for it. So was the president of Suffolk County Community College on the basis that some students don’t have the cash available to gas up their cars — an expensive proposition these days — thus they use a credit card.

One owner of more than 20 gas stations in Suffolk was “at least candid with me,” said Mr. Schneiderman, and in a conversation disclosed why he charged an extra 98 cents a gallon for credit card use at his stations. “He said he wanted to discourage credit use because he wanted people to use cash and have to come into the station … with the hope that when they came in they’d buy coffee or chips or soda in the mini-marts at his stations,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

The owner told the legislator that “the mark-up on these items was much higher than for gas.”

The argument of the Long Island Gas Retailers Association, meanwhile, was that gas station owners “never deceived anyone,” as Kevin Beyer, president of the 600-member group, put it.

“This is really overkill,” declared Legislator Thomas Cilmi, a Bay Shore Republican, emphasizing that cash and credit prices can be found on pumps. Yes, they are, Mr. Schneiderman said, but there should be better notice.

Opposition to the measure crossed party lines. Democratic Legislator Louis D’Amaro of North Babylon termed it “anti-consumer.” The only legislators voting with Mr. Schneiderman, an Independence Party member who also runs on the Democratic line, were fellow Democrats Sarah Anker, Monica Martinez, Kara Hahn, William Lindsay and Dwayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Legislature. The six members of the Legislature’s GOP caucus all agreed to oppose the measure.

Mr. Schneiderman said he hopes the state might take action. He sat down several months ago and “spoke about my struggle” with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (no relation), who said his office seeks to go after “unscrupulous business practices.” And that, said Mr. Schneiderman, “is what this is.”