COVID-19 press conference

Flanked by Attorney General Keith Ellison, Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a press conference on Friday, March 13 announcing “community mitigation strategies” intended to slow the spread of the COVID-19. Walz and Ellison are teaming up to fight price gouging. (Evan Frost/MPR News)

As the global coronavirus pandemic hits Minnesota hard and families rush to stock up on supplies, Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison are rushing to crack down on price gouging.

An emergency executive order signed on Friday, prohibits charging “unconscionably excessive” prices for “essential consumer goods and services,” including food, medicine, housing, and gasoline.

The order defines “unconscionably excessive” as more than 20% higher than a price that was charged within the previous 30 days, unless the business or individual can demonstrate that the cost increase is primarily attributable to increased costs beyond their control.

No price gouging law exists at the federal level, and Minnesota is one of just 16 states which lacks a state-level law. Nonetheless, Gov. Walz has implemented the decision with the powers granted to him under the Peacetime State of Emergency Declaration issued Mar. 13.

Since last week, the office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has received more than 300 complaints related to price gouging, according to Deputy Chief of Staff John Stiles. Many of those were received before the price gouging ban came into effect at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

Stiles said that the Attorney General’s office worked closely with the Governor on the executive order and began accepting reports in anticipation of its implementation. Currently, staff for the office are now visiting stores on the lookout for the unsavory practice.

The Attorney General’s website now has a page dedicated to Minnesotans who wish to report price gouging.

Stiles said that when staff for the Attorney General’s office witness or receive documentation of price gouging, they can issue an order to that business or individual to cease and desist, under the threat of legal action.

Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said that his office reached out to the Attorney General’s office after receiving reports of price gouging from constituents. Draheim said that he is glad to see the governor and attorney general take action.

“This is not the time for people to be price gouging each other,” he added.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, also said he was glad to see action against price gouging. Like Draheim, Lippert said he has heard from constituents who have been victimized by the practice.

“There’s a few people who are trying to take advantage of a crisis situation and we need to make sure that’s not happening,” he said. “People need to be protected so that they can get what they need during this time of emergency.”

Because the measure has been implemented via executive order and not by the legislature, it will only have effect for the duration of the Peacetime Emergency. Some legislators have called for the measure to be made permanent.

Along with several of his colleagues, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill banning price gouging on March 12. It was included as part of a broad package of reforms that the House had proposed to help Minnesotans affected by the pandemic.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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