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Op-ed column

Coupon fine just another cash grab by state

Sunday, March 10, 2013
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Op-ed column


Price Chopper is usually the last place I go to buy groceries. Nevertheless, there are some disturbing aspects of the $100,000 fine that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office levied against the grocery chain for allegedly not making its double coupon policy clear.

In another smaller but equally disturbing case, the state Department of Environmental Conservation fined the South Minden Volunteer Fire Department $1,000 for not removing the trash from an old barn before burning it for training purposes.

What is most troubling about the Price Chopper fine is that the money is going into the state’s pockets, not into the pockets of the customers that Schneiderman says lost millions of dollars. In January, Schneiderman reached a settlement with Best Buy for engaging “in misleading and deceptive sales practices.” The result was that Best Buy had to reimburse customers to the tune of $500,000. So why is Schneiderman fining Price Chopper instead of making the money available for customers, as he did with Best Buy?

Punishing victims

If Price Chopper did what Schneiderman says it did, the state is not the victim — the shoppers are. Isn’t that like recovering stolen money and giving it to the police department instead of to the victims of the theft?

Price Chopper has agreed to pay the state’s costs for the investigation, so there is no reason for the state to keep the $100,000.

Furthermore, in his press release, Schneiderman said that Price Chopper’s “failure to disclose coupon restrictions amounted to millions in lost savings to consumers.”

Where’s the beef? If Price Chopper cost shoppers millions of dollars, why was it only fined $100,000 when Best Buy had to pay $500,000? While Schneiderman’s press release offers some proof by listing the total number of coupons used in April and May of 2012, those figures are deceptive because they constitute all the coupons used at Price Chopper, whereas the questionable coupon policies only involved stores in Syracuse and Cortland.

Frankly, Schneiderman’s assertion that customers lost millions is doubtful. He should, at the least, provide proof positive to back up his assertion.

What $1,000 means

What is troubling about the DEC’s fine of the South Minden Volunteer Fire Department is that it is a small department and $1,000 is equivalent to more than Price Chopper’s $100,000 fine.

I have a feeling that Joe Martens, DEC commissioner, has never attended a pancake breakfast at a volunteer firehouse. Since moving to a somewhat rural area, I have attended these fundraisers. They are wonderful events. You get a lot of great food for a reasonable price, and the fire department gets money to keep operating.

If Martens had ever gone to one, he would realize that $1,000 represents about 125 meals. It represents the donation of more than 20 dozen eggs, along with many pounds of butter and bacon, gallons of syrup, milk and orange juice, not to mention the number of volunteer hours spent preparing the breakfast.

Why didn’t the DEC give the fire department a warning, since it was their first offense, or an alternative punishment, like cleaning up some property in the town that needed remediation? We often give criminals alternatives to punishment. Why not do the same for a volunteer organization that provides a necessary and free service to the community?

So why did state agencies fine Price Chopper and the South Minden Volunteer Fire Department? The obvious answer is, “because they can.” While other alternatives would have been more reasonable and more just, justice and reason don’t seem to be the focus of powerful agencies which the state Legislature has set up and relinquished some of its sovereignty to in the process.

We have more state agencies than ever before and they have more power than they have ever had. They pass regulations that we have to obey just as if the Legislature passed them. The difference is that these agencies act as police, prosecutor, judge and jury all rolled into one.

Another revenue source

But there may be another reason state agencies love to fine corporations, non-profits and individuals. Not satisfied with the income derived from taxes and fees, it may very well be that they use these fines to provide another revenue stream during these tough economic times. I cannot prove that, any more than Attorney General Schneiderman can prove that Price Chopper deliberately deceived people, nevertheless it is a possibility.

If the state wants to look into something at Price Chopper, and not just Price Chopper but almost every grocery, fast-food and retail chain in New York state, it might examine the income gap between the CEOs and the bag boys and cashiers. It might ask how the grunts are supposed to live on part-time hours with low wages and virtually no benefits. It might examine how the low wages these companies pay make some of their employees eligible for food stamps, HEAP and other government programs.

Unfortunately, it appears that the state cares more about the fine print on coupon ads than it does the lives of the working poor. And its concern for consumers is a sham; otherwise, it would not be pocketing the $100,000 it took from Price Chopper.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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