TRENTON – Warehouse clubs such as Costco would be prevented from limiting their gasoline sales to people with paid memberships in New Jersey, under bills proposed in the state Senate that seek to reverse a change that started three months ago.

Costco sells gas only to members who pay the $60 annual club membership. It had been selling to anyone in New Jersey since 2004, under the impression that was required under state law, but sought clarification earlier this year and got permission to institute its members-only rule.

Sales at Costco gas pumps began to be limited to club members on July 5.

Targeting members-only gas at Costco

Legislation (S3029) newly introduced by Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, would prohibit that restriction.

“I see gasoline the same as I would see food or energy bills or anything. I think it’s a public access,” Gopal said. “We’re not saying what they can and can’t charge. We’re saying that it should be made available to everyone.”

Costco generally sells gasoline at cheaper prices than other stations, sometimes leading to long lines – especially back in June, when the statewide average for a gallon of regular unleaded peaked above $5.

Currently, the statewide average as measured by AAA is $3.446 for regular. According to a review of data on the Costco website, the current average at its 18 gas stations in New Jersey is $3.199, ranging from $2.999 in Bayonne to $3.319 in Flemington.

Public interest vs. business interests

The proposed bill says the public interest is harmed by the decrease in the availability of gas stations if wholesale retailers selling through warehouse clubs limit sales to members.

It says a prohibition against such restrictions would increase accessibility and convenience without causing economic harm to the public. It says it doesn’t constitute a restraint of trade in derogation of the general public interest because the availability of gas stations outweighs a benefit offered to select individuals.

“The more we see corporations trying to take control of populations on what they can and can’t spend I think is wrong,” Gopal said. “They’re a merchant like anyone else. We’ve got rising gas prices – although they’re dropping slightly, it’s still way higher than it was a year ago. And I don’t think it should be limited to certain folks.”

Civil penalties for violations of the proposed law would be up to $1,000 for a first offense, $5,000 for a second offense and $10,000 for each subsequent offense.

Nearly identical legislation (S3000) was also introduced by Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex.

The proposal hasn’t gotten a legislative hearing, and it isn’t yet known if it will.

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Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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