Unable to control the national debit card companies that put a hold on people’s accounts when they fill up at the pump – sometimes for two to three times the amount owed – the Legislature’s business committee is divided over a watered-down rule requiring Maine gas stations to warn people their money has been frozen.

Rep. Walter Ash, D-Belfast, had wanted a bill that would prohibit debit card companies from keeping a hold on money in people’s accounts for more than one hour, or face a fine.

Instead the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee split on a proposal to require a point-of-purchase warning, most likely on the gas pump, to alert customers that more than they owe could be frozen in their account before the electronic paperwork clears.

“I’m disappointed, but I’ll get another chance on the floor,” Ash said, after a majority of the committee voted to let the market police itself rather than pass any legislation.

Senate committee Chairman Lynn Bromley, D-Cumberland County, pushed for a law that would require notification, either written or on the electronic screen on the gas pump, as a compromise to Ash’s original proposal. The attorney general’s office would send out a warning letter for the first offense, and issue a $50 fine for the second.

“If somebody’s going to hold up my money in my account, they better tell me,” Bromley said.

Other members of the committee, including all the Republicans and one Democrat, said the market would take care of itself.

“Rep. Ash has done us a favor by raising the visibility of this issue,” said Rep. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, who questioned “putting a statute on the books where the issue is beyond our capacity to control it effectively.”

Sen. Dana Dow, R-Lincoln County, agreed, saying, “it is a national problem that I don’t know if were going to solve in this state.” His fear was the posting would be confusing and tough for gas station employees to explain to the general public.

Rep. Charles Crosby, D-Topsham, said the market would police itself and legislation was not needed.

“It is in the best interest of the Maine Oil Dealers Association to notify their customers, so they’re happy customers and keep buying gas at that station,” Crosby said.

The bill has received a lot of media attention since it was first proposed by Rep. Ash last year. Democratic leadership in the House, along with Attorney General Steven Rowe, touted it at a press conference at the end of last month.

But a task force set up by the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee determined Maine could not tell the national debit card companies what to do, and instead recommended a customer warning.

Under the amendment, which will be introduced as part of a divided report from the committee, gas stations would have to post a sign on their pumps or display an electronic message warning customers a hold could be placed on their account for 24-hours or even longer.

While it has long been common at hotels and rental car companies to put a temporary hold on people’s credit or debit cards, the practice is starting to hit home at the gas pump because the price of gas has gone up so dramatically. It is also starting to affect more people because of the increased use of debit cards.

The committee is likely to meet one more time on the bill before making its divided recommendation to the full Legislature.

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