ST. PAUL — More than a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic first took hold of Minnesota, panicking residents who hectically stocked up on essential goods, unsure of how long they’d be ordered to stay at home.

With the memory of empty store shelves and jacked-up prices still fresh, state representatives on Monday, March 23 passed a bill making it illegal to price gouge essential goods during emergencies.

House File 844 passed the Minnesota House largely along party lines by a 71-62 vote. If passed, the bill would create a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per transaction for retailers found to be price gouging essential goods and services. Thirty-five other states have similar laws on the books.

Democrats say the ban is necessary so that Minnesotans can afford basic necessities needed to survive when disasters strike, whether that’s a pandemic, extreme weather event or otherwise. Republicans say that businesses need to be able to set their own prices without fear of hefty civil penalties, and that increasing prices can be a tool to stave off hoarding of supplies.

State Rep. Zack Stephenson, D-Coon Rapids, who chairs the House Commerce, Finance and Policy Committee, authored the bill. In a Monday statement, he said the pandemic has wrought devastating economic impacts on Minnesotans already.

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“Minnesotans deserve to be protected from bad actors seeking to profit off of the needs and fears of others in a time of crisis,” he said. “Price gouging is a morally repugnant practice that hurts those who have been most impacted by this public health crisis; it’s time for our state to stand up for each other and hold bad actors accountable.”

While the bill is supported by the Minnesota Retailers Association, it is opposed by the Minnesota Grocers Association. President Jamie Pfuhl told the House committee in February that while the bill is “very well intended,” she fears it will put undue burdens on grocers who already have a lot on their plates during emergencies.

In March 2020, Gov. Tim Walz used his executive peacetime emergency powers to prohibit price gouging throughout the duration of the pandemic, which is enforceable by the Attorney General’s Office. Once Walz cedes his peacetime emergency declaration and associated expanded powers, that order would expire. HF 844 seeks to make the price gouging ban permanent.

The bill has the support of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who told a legislative committee in February that banning price gouging during emergencies is “fundamental to helping all Minnesotans fund their lives and live with dignity and respect.”

The bill requires approval from the Republican-controlled state Senate before it can be signed into law.

Minnesotans who suspect cases of price gouging can report them online through Ellison's office or by calling 651-296-3353 in the metro or 800-657-3787 in Greater Minnesota.