By John S. McClenahen It will be another four weeks before the U.S. Commerce Department publishes personal spending data for March. But with relatively high gas prices and a very soft job market there's little basis to believe that consumers have gone on a spending spree this month. Each penny increase in gasoline prices, for example, drains more than $1 billion from discretionary income, notes Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. Last month, consumer spending, not adjusted for inflation, was flat for the second consecutive month, says the Commerce Department. However, figuring in energy-driven price changes, spending dropped 0.4% in February. Real spending fell 0.2% in January. "With March spending likely to be soft, consumer spending will rise at slightly over a 1% rate in the first quarter," predicts David A. Rosenberg, Merrill's chief North American economist. "This is consistent with our forecast of about 1% [annual rate] GDP growth in the first quarter."