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Groups pool resources to promote cheaper gas

The coalition wants to allow Wal-Mart to sell discount fuel by repealing a 1985 law that forbids below-cost gasoline.

Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil Corp. are bankrolling a fight to repeal a 1985 state law that forbids below-cost sales of gasoline at the pumps.

Ernie Bach, a Largo resident active in Florida's Silver Haired Legislature, is the executive director of the newly formed Coalition for Lower Gas Prices.

Bach said other consumer groups and businesses that support discount gasoline sales will help work to get legislators to repeal a law that has blocked Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil selling discount gasoline outside Wal-Mart superstores in the state.

Bach said the law costs Florida consumers an extra $150-million each year.

The law was the focus of a legislative fight this year as lobbyists for the Petroleum Marketers Inc. tried to pass a law making it easier to penalize companies that sell below-cost gasoline.

That move failed, but the petroleum marketers did succeed in getting the responsibility for enforcement of the law transferred from Attorney General Bob Butterworth's office to the Department of Agriculture.

Bach said Wal-Mart will offer customers a chance to join the coalition and sign statements that will be delivered to legislators.

Although the new coalition has been formed with the help of a $50,000 donation from Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil, Bach said other businesses and consumer groups have agreed to join, including the Silver Haired Legislature, the Association for Retarded Citizens and the Florida Action Coalition Team.

The law was originally passed in an effort to keep gasoline companies from lowering prices to drive out competition, but has merely resulted in higher gasoline prices for consumers, Bach said.

The National Federation of Independent Business and Petroleum Marketers supports a bill that would retain and refine the 1985 law.

A spokesman for the marketing group said repealing the law would make it easier for big companies like Murphy to drive competitors out of the market.

Bach said federal laws already provide protection against predatory pricing.

Rick McAllister, president of the Petroleum Marketers, said the new group is merely trying to take advantage of high gasoline prices to drive out competition. Florida gasoline prices have lingered at around $1.50 a gallon for most of the summer, prompting an outcry from consumers.

"I can't think of anyone who is not in favor of lower gas prices," McAllister said. "But don't be fooled. Murphy Oil and Wal-Mart are not interested in anything but their bottom lines."

Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil want to offer discount gift cards in Wal-Mart stores, but have been sued by the Petroleum Marketers when the price dipped below wholesale costs.

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