California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (search) wants to prevent "price gouging" by oil companies by creating a constitutional amendment that would put gasoline on a list of commodities named as public utilities.

"By adding the word gasoline to the list of services and commodities that are defined as public utilities in the state constitution, we will empower the people to hold oil companies accountable for their irresponsible price gouging," Bustamante said Thursday at a Sacramento news conference held in front of a gas station.

Regulating the gas industry would give the state's Public Utilities Commission oversight of oil companies the same way they regulate power companies and telecommunications firms.

Bustamante, who is running to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search) in the Oct. 7 recall election, said that California has the highest gas prices in the nation, and claimed that the oil companies make the fattest profit margin there.

Faced with the expected increases in oil prices, the state must take action before it is cheated, Bustamante said.

"The crisis is far from over. We are in the eye of the hurricane. As the governor's long-term energy contracts and the federal price caps expire, the market conditions will be ripe for exploitation next year. Unless we act now, we will get ripped off again," he said.

Bustamante did recognize that the oil industry adds significant revenue to the state's economy and employs thousands of well-paid workers in refineries.  But he said because of the environmental damage that California faces as a result of being the home to these companies, the state deserves to get something back.

"Because California bears the burden of all the environmental risks, it is even more inexcusable that our prices are higher than states that have no refineries," he said, adding that the clean air standards demanded by the state add only 4 cents of tax to each gallon of gas.

Comparing the profit-taking by oil companies to other corporate cheats, Bustamante said, "The oil companies explain their behavior the same way Enron (search) did — they say it's someone else's fault. We heard it all." 

State Sen. Joe Dunn (search), D-Santa Ana, who led the state Senate committee that investigated California's energy crisis, was introducing the constitutional amendment in the California Senate on Thursday, Bustamante said.

He added that he regrets his 1996 support as a state assemblyman for deregulating electricity and calls for the state legislature to re-impose authority over power.