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As Gas Prices Rise, State Government Slow To Make Changes

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Almost nine months after Hurricane Katrina, North Carolinians are again digging nearly as deep into their wallets for gas. Prices peaked in early September, 2005 at $3.18 per gallon, and spiked again to $3.10 in October. Now prices are inching closer to those highs, at $2.90 a gallon.

But last fall, some things were different. Gov. Mike Easley was calling for conservation, ordering state employees to carpool, and Attorney General Roy Cooper was fielding hundreds of gouging complaints. With wallets stretched nearly as far, is there as much action from the state now?

The state's motor fleet has close to 8,500 cars and trucks. Compared to this time a year ago, it costs 60 to 70 cents more per gallon to fill them up. Clearly, fuel takes a bigger bite out of state government, but there are no drastic measures to conserve.

Last September, hundreds of state vehicles sat idle. State workers even put grass mowing on hold. Fast-forward to this spring, with gas prices again hovering around $3 a gallon. So far, the governor is not stepping in.

"The supply situation is not quite as serious now as it was then," said Secretary Of Administration Britt Cobb. "Yes, the price is always an issue."

Cobb says so far, transportation budgets haven't exploded, but that might change.

"If fuel prices continue to escalate, then we'll have to readdress that," he said.

Cobb said each state department makes its own travel decisions. He said that close to 70 percent of the state's motor fleet takes an ethanol mix -- a not yet cheaper, but cleaner renewable fuel. The state also owns more than 100 hybrid vehicles, which have better mileage but are more expensive to buy.

When they return to Raleigh next week, lawmakers are expected to debate calls to roll back the gas tax. They will also hear a plea from Cooper to expand price-gouging laws. Currently those laws don't go into effect unless North Carolina is in a declared emergency.

"That was frustrating, because you had some cases of people who may have been gouging at the pump," said Cooper. "There's very little way under the law to go after them."

Instead of emergency conservation efforts or lowering the gas tax, Easley indicates he's more interested in potential gouging. He has called on the president to investigate big oil companies.


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