Kentucky's laws against price gouging in times of emergencies would be updated under a bill proposing guidelines to determine when price hikes are considered unlawfully excessive.
The measure sailed through a Senate panel Tuesday but drew criticism later from the state's attorney general, who said he's concerned the bill would weaken consumer protections.
"Kentucky's price gouging laws are some of the strongest in the nation to help protect Kentuckians during an emergency declaration," Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said in a statement. "We have major concerns that Senate Bill 160 weakens these protections."
The bill won committee approval as parts of Kentucky struggle with flooding.
Sen. Rick Girdler said his bill would add clarity to anti-gouging laws to assist with compliance and enforcement. Under current law, he said, it's hard to "clearly identify the boundary" of what's considered a legal price increase and what's deemed grossly excessive.
"It's somewhat like playing baseball with no foul line, leaving businesses to guess what's fair and what's foul," said Girdler, a Somerset Republican. "Senate Bill 160 establishes some new boundaries, leaving less chance for unintentional violations and creating less risk of arbitrary ... enforcement."
The laws aim to protect people from grossly excessive price hikes in times of emergencies for essentials such as food, home heating oil, emergency and medical supplies, and building materials.
Under the bill, an increase of 10 percent or less above the price on the day before the governor's order triggering the consumer protections would not violate the law.
The bill states that in determining if violations occurred, courts would consider "all relevant circumstances, including prices prevailing in the locality at that time." Another section says total penalties against any violator could not exceed $25,000 for any 24-hour period.
Girdler said the bill "remains true" to the law's consumer protections. He said it balances the rights of consumers and the rights of businesses seeking to comply with the law.
The bill cleared its first hurdle Tuesday, winning approval from the Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee on an 11-0 vote. No one spoke against the bill.
Last week, Gov. Matt Bevin declared an emergency as parts of Kentucky were inundated with flooding caused by heavy rains. In doing so, the Republican governor also activated the state's prohibitions on price gouging in emergencies. After the emergency declaration, Beshear's office issued a release asking Kentuckians to report price gouging to the AG's office.