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Turner: Sacrifice A Good First Response To Energy Crisis

The harsh reality of the pain inflicted on residents of the Gulf Region from horrific hurricane damage has not blown out to sea. Instead, it has widened its swath and refocused its eye on economies far to the north including our own State of New Jersey.

Like the mistaken judgements of those who thought they could ride out the fury of Katrina from their living room rockers in New Orleans, we in New Jersey would be foolish to sit back and ignore the signs of what is surely to come.

Instead of ignoring the onslaught of rising utility bills and staggering gasoline prices, we should make whatever lifestyle changes we can now to conserve our energy resources during this time of national crisis. Our sacrifices now will keep us whole later.

These first chilly nights of autumn should be reminders enough that our heating bills, whether by oil, natural gas or electricity, are going to climb a whole lot faster than our thermometers plummet with the onset of winter’s deep freeze.

And, if we thought gouging was just a passing fancy at the gas pumps after the two recent hurricanes, we should think again. History has shown that gas shortages – from the rationing days of World War II to the long lines at service stations during the 1970s to today – have always inspired a multitude of scheming profiteers who are all too willing to victimize the consumers who think they have no place else to turn.

Already, the impact of the gas crisis is being felt by those who need their cars to get to work, to shop, to drive children to their activities, to get prescriptions from the pharmacy or to make a doctor’s appointment. More and more, people on fixed incomes are being forced to shop close to home and pay more for necessities because it’s too expensive to drive farther away for discounts.

It’s not exactly surprising that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation cited higher gasoline prices for slowing down New Jersey’s econonmy during the pre-hurricane summer months and predicted a sluggish pace nationally in the post-disaster recovery period.

And now, Jeanne Fox, President of the State Board of Public Utilities, has projected that sharp increases in the prices of natural gas and heating oil will force New Jersey residents to pay an average of $400 more than last year to heat their homes this winter.

My reaction to all this is that we may be short on power – from gas, oil and electricity – these days, but we’re not powerless, unless we decide to do nothing. Over time, the State needs a comprehensive strategic plan to deal with these energy realities. But we need to start now with something for the short term.

First off, let’s crack down on the gas gougers. I just put in a bill to impose a fine of up to $2,000 for someone who changes the selling price of gas more than once in a 24-hour period. Right now, such an offense – a violation of the 1938 State law governing the sale of gasoline – could be punished by a fine as low as $50 or as high as just $200. My bill also would hit multiple offenders of the gas law with fines of $5,000 for each subsequent offense. It might sound harsh, but somebody has to fight for the consumers who are held hostage by their need to drive. And, it is noteworthy that the oil companies are reporting record profits these days.

Eventually, my legislation, S-2810, will require that money from all fines imposed on greedy oil company profiteers during this crisis be placed in a fund to help low income seniors and the disabled pay for their home heating bills.

Next, let’s trade in our television action heroes who star in all those advertising spots promoting sales of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles that race across the countryside in what is portrayed as a sort of patriotic frenzy. Even President Bush has turned in his pro-production phrase book in favor of clauses espousing energy conservation.

Let’s get on the gasoline conservation bandwagon. Let’s drive smaller cars that don’t burn as much gasoline. Let’s promote hybrid vehicles as the future of local driving. My bill, S-1920, would provide $2,000 credits under both the gross income tax and the corportate business tax for the purchase of qualified hybrid vehicles registered in the State. Hybrid vehicles are defined in the bill as drawing propulsion energy from both an internal combustion engine and an energy storage device and having a regenerative braking system to recover waste energy to charge the energy storage device.

Individually and as families, let’s attack demand for energy by cutting back on usage, by lowering our thermostats at home, by using mass transit where possible, by adding insulation to our homes and by car pooling with co-workers. Less demand will lower prices for energy. Who knows – more snuggling may work too.

Senator Shirley K. Turner represents the 15th Legislative District in Mercer County. She is a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and also serves as Chair of the Senate Education Committee.