Before taxes are factored in, Idaho motorists continue to pay higher prices for gasoline than their counterparts in the rest of the Lower 48 states, according to the latest data from AAA.
Premium prices for fuel are hardly a new development in the Gem State. According to AAA, Idaho’s average gas prices have consistently exceeded the national average since May.
Brett DeLange, head of the Consumer Protection Division at the Idaho attorney general’s office, said one reason for the higher fuel costs is the profit margins reported by retailers, notably those in Treasure Valley.
“It’s running over 30 cents a gallon, and that, to us, seems high,” DeLange told the Idaho Statesman in a story published Oct. 25.
When gas taxes are included, Idaho falls from No. 1 in the Lower 48 to No. 4, DeLange said. That’s because Idaho’s state tax is half the 49 to 53.5 cents paid in Connecticut, New York and California — the only states in the continental U.S. with higher pump prices than Idaho’s.
It’s not unusual for Idaho gas prices to outpace the national average, but it is unusual for Idaho to lead the way as early and for as long as it has in 2013, said Dave Carlson, who has been tracking Idaho gas prices for AAA since 1989. Between March and August, while national prices were generally declining, Idaho’s prices kept increasing.
“They zigged, and we zagged,” Carlson said. “Conspiracy theorists will be saying something is amiss, but the big amiss thing is we are in an isolated area of the country that doesn’t get too much access.”
Idaho is the only western state without an oil field or refinery. In terms of the effect of profit margins on prices, one retailer agrees his margin is higher than normal right now.
But John Jackson, whose Jackson Oil sells gas from 200 stores in four Western states, said his year-to-date numbers are pretty typical.
“Margins jump up, and they jump down,” he said. “Wholesale prices are coming down, and typically when that happens, the margin gets better” because stations try to use up fuel they’ve already bought to earn a little extra revenue.”
He also said about 10 cents of the margin goes to cover credit card fees.
Throughout Idaho’s distribution area, which also includes Utah and Montana, the retail margin is running more than 27 cents, DeLange said. His office does not track margins in other states.
The Consumer Protection Division closely monitors state gas prices and the office occasionally investigates costs. The last came in 2008.
“High prices in and of themselves are not a crime,” DeLange said. “Price-gouging is not a crime.”
What is illegal, he said, is price-fixing — when stations get together and set a price. One station raising its price to match a competitor’s is responding to the market, not fixing, he said.