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Price Gouging or Supply and Demand?

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If you have been forced to drive into downtown this week instead of taking the lightrail or bus, you’ve no doubt paid more money to park than you would have had to pay in a normal week. Rates have risen by at least 50 percent in some cases, and as the Rocky Mountain News reported yesterday, consumers obviously aren’t pleased:

Commuters complained that Ampco System Parking began Monday with all-day parking rates at $10. On Tuesday, the fee was up to $12, and Wednesday, it reached $15. “To me it’s price gouging,” said Jim Dalessio, who has been car-pooling with two of his co-workers, Angie Anderson and Nick Weaver, and parking at the Ampco System lot.

I drove into downtown today and paid more for parking than normal, and I wasn’t happy about it either. But is it price gouging — as in, an illegal activity — or is it just the law of supply and demand at work? In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year, some businesses in areas hit hard by the storm got into trouble for inflating prices, especially for things like gasoline. But should parking lot operators in Denver face the same scrutiny? I asked a spokesperson at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office where the legal line is drawn. The definition of “price gouging” is pretty ambigious, says Kristen Hubbell, spokesperson for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. “Generally, price gouging is charging an unconscionable price for a product or service. “However, unconscionability depends on a review of all circumstances surrounding a transaction, including the equality of the bargaining power of the respective parties, competition in the marketplace, existence of fraud, collusion, etc. ” The main problem here is that there is a difficult burden of proof for determining when you move from “supply and demand” to a point where you can claim that someone is unconscionably overcharging for a service like parking. Colorado has a legal definition of price fixing on the books, but we don’t have a legal definition of “price gouging.” The closest thing we have in Colorado is a statute created last year regarding emergency pharmaceuticals. “In that statute, we used a presumption of price gouging where prices increase more than 10 percnet over the average price during the 30 days before a declared health emergency,” says Hubbell. Interestingly enough, Hubbell says the legislature is currently considering a bill (HB-1251) that would help define “price gouging” in a broader sense, but even under the language outlined in HB-1251, you can’t even have the discussion until the governor has declared a formal state of emergency. The RTD strike, obviously, does not constitute a “state of emergency.” In the meantime, you can complain all you want about rising parking prices, but the only thing you can do about it would be to try to file a civil lawsuit, which is going to cost you significantly more money than the extra $3-5 you forked out for parking this morning. “At this point, enforcement of price gouging claims would be a purely private matter,” says Hubbell. “Neither this office, nor any other law enforcement agency, has jurisdiction to investigate or to prosecute price gouging claims.”

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