Suppose you could wave a magic wand and “poof,” gas prices were suddenly low again? That’s the magical thinking behind a bill introduced by a South Carolina state senator, who is so impressed by the awesome power of his office that he thinks he can cap fuel prices all by himself.

State Sen. Dick Elliott’s bill would cap the wholesale price of gas as it enters South Carolina, for a year. To draw even more attention to himself as the beleaguered driver’s man of the hour, he wants to hold public hearings. And he expects to become a folk hero, with a Jimmy Stewart look-alike playing him on the silver screen.  

I don’t often agree with the oil lobby, but John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, had it right when he declared, “If he passes this legislation, he had better start buying bicycles for people in South Carolina.” Plainly, oil companies would take Elliott’s shot across their bows as a reason not to sell gas at all in the state, and the gas lines would start to grow. Here's what it looks like on the TV, with API taking on Elliott, who looks a bit like a deer caught in the headlights:

Big Oil would tear the senator’s playhouse down. They have every incentive to ensure that the law results in chaos — basically to avoid exactly the scenario that Elliott, a Democrat who gained his vast knowledge of oil politics as a golf course and real estate developer, says he’s after. “If South Carolina imposes this measure,” he said, “it would be a message to other states to follow suit — and certainly a message to our do-nothing Congress that they need to get off their duffs and look around at what's happening across the land and do all they can to curtail these prices.”  

A state cap on gas prices was actually trotted out briefly in Hawaii, where the pain ($5 a gallon average on Maui) is pretty extreme. But the legislation was only in place for a few months before it was repealed. According to Hawaii News Now, it caused “chaos at the pumps,” with wild fluctuations in pricing, and not much relief for motorists.

That hasn’t stopped original sponsor, Hawaii state Sen. Ron Menor (now out of office,) from wanting to grab the spotlight again and bring it back. "I believe that there would be significant savings," he said. "Consumers could be saving roughly 20 to 30 cents per gallon if we had gas pricing regulation. I really think it is only a matter of time before elected officials, including the governor, are forced to address the issue."

But Hawaii’s cap was messy in the extreme, and saving 20 cents a gallon isn’t really relief. According to Richard Borreca, a columnist for Honolulu’s Star-Advertiser, the cap gave advance warning of imminent price increases, which led to some predictable behavior. "Say you knew that the price was going to go up 20 cents tomorrow, so everyone would be in line the night before to get gasoline," he said. "It was confusing, it wasn’t popular, and at the end, it wasn't saving that much money one way or the other."

The people’s champion, Dick Elliott, says he’s all for capitalism, “but in this case we don’t believe the competitive free enterprise system is fully at work.” It is working, though. Of course, oil companies are gouging the public. But on a basic level gas prices are set on the international spot market, in response to world demand, as Felmy points out.

If Elliott really wanted to lower gas prices, he’d work on lowering demand. In Hawaii, that would mean taking advantage of the islands’ abundant solar and wind resources. And plugging in some electric cars, too, a process that's now underway on Maui. That's the way to sock it to Big Oil. But it’s easier to just introduce a silly bill and hold public hearings that get you on television.

Also on MNN: 10 ways to save money on gasoline

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Legislation for idiots: State caps on high gas prices
No, a state senator cannot single-handedly take down Big Oil. That only happens in Frank Capra movies. In real life, the petroleum giants always get their way.