The little red motor scooter pulled up beneath the tall dome atop Denver's city hall, and the rider strolled right past the security guards into the mayor's office.
Which was not surprising, because the man on the scooter was in fact Mayor John W. Hickenlooper, who tools around this sprawling city on a red Vespa as part of his effort to remind local residents of the need to save energy amid skyrocketing oil prices.
Like the popular Denver mayor, elected leaders all over the country are searching for ways this fall to respond to the surge in gasoline and heating oil prices. But global energy markets, coupled with pinched government budgets at the federal and local levels, make it difficult for governors and mayors to go much beyond symbolic measures such as lowering thermostats in public buildings and finding fuel-efficient ways to get around.
"A governor doesn't have control over the world price of crude oil," notes Diane S. Shea, executive director of the National Association of State Energy Officers. "What the states can do is help reduce fossil fuel consumption and give some assistance to people who can't afford the heating bills they're likely to face this winter."
Many states this fall plan to expand existing programs that help low-income families pay heating bills or "winterize" their homes.
In recent testimony before the Senate Energy Committee, state officials noted pointedly that the Bush administration has failed to provide the funding governors expected to receive from Washington for energy assistance programs.
The expansive energy bill Congress passed this summer, for example, authorized $100 billion for state government programs promoting energy efficiency and renewable fuels. But the administration's spending plan cuts that figure to $44 billion. The same bill promised $500 million for state programs to help low-income households reduce fuel use. The Bush budget cuts that program in half, Shea said.
With or without federal support, many northern and mountain states are planning new tax credits or grants to help with fuel-oil prices this winter. Several legislatures have scheduled special sessions this fall for this purpose. "We should not wait until there is a front-page story of a senior citizen freezing to death," said Connecticut state Sen. John Fonfara (D).
One area where states and cities can act on their own is declaring a state sales tax "holiday" to relieve the pressure of high fuel prices.
Georgia has been the leader on this track. Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) waived all state taxes on gasoline in September when prices spiked after Hurricane Katrina; the state says that saved drivers about $75 million in all. This month, Georgia declared a no-sales-tax weekend for purchasers of appliances that carry the "Energy Star" rating for efficiency. A shopper buying a $1,500 air conditioner could have saved $60. Perdue also proposed closing schools for two days to save fuel last month.
New York and North Carolina are considering tax-relief plans. New Mexico has adopted a $700 reduction in the state sales tax on new cars for drivers who purchase a fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle. The D.C. Council has agreed to alter the city tax on heating fuel as prices rise, so that the total cost to the consumer will be constant. Suffolk County, N.Y., cut its heating-oil tax by 1 percent, with estimated savings of $26 per household per year.
Amid all the fuel tax reductions, Washington's legislature went the other direction this year, increasing the state's gasoline tax by 30 percent, or 9.5 cents per gallon. Citizens groups quickly put forth an initiative to repeal the increase. The issue is on next month's statewide ballot.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a U.S. energy secretary in the Clinton administration, is emphasizing his experience in the field as he contemplates a race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. In addition to the tax rebate for hybrid buyers, Richardson has floated a bond issue to pay for energy efficiency in public buildings, launched a new mass-transit system serving Albuquerque and its suburbs, and funded a program to pay one month's heating bill each winter for needy families.
Like other governors, Richardson has also embraced symbolic measures. Earlier this month, he invited the reporters to a Ford dealership in Albuquerque, where the governor received the keys to his new state car -- a hybrid Ford Escape SUV.
An Associated Press survey found that six governors have turned in their gas guzzlers this year and switched to hybrid power for the official vehicle. Several mayors have done the same; Hickenlooper, the Vespa-riding mayor of Denver, recently bought a hybrid Ford Escape for official trips.
But other governors have rejected such a move as mere theatrics. Texas's Rick Perry (R), Colorado's Bill Owens (R), and Indiana's Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) have all said they will stick with heavy, thirsty official vehicles and look for other ways to save fuel.
Daniels told reporters in Indianapolis that his official car, a Beaver Patriot Thunder RV, gets only 8 miles per gallon -- but it runs on bio-diesel fuel made from Indiana-grown soybeans.