Opinion
9:15 am
Mon December 16, 2013

Michigan Senate didn’t do anything to bust scrap metal thieves

Lessenberry commentary for 12/16/13

The Michigan Legislature passed some dramatic bills before adjourning for the year last week, bills that got a lot of attention.

There was the so-called “rape insurance” law, which prevents health insurance from automatically covering abortion even in cases of rape, incest or the mother’s health.

There was also a highly controversial campaign finance bill that doubles the amount the rich are allowed to give to political candidates, and allows special interest groups to spend vast amounts on so-called ‘issue ads” without disclosing the source of their funding.

But there were also things the lawmakers did that got lost in the shuffle. And the state senate did something guaranteed to help criminals in Detroit, and keep destroying the buildings that are left. They destroyed a bill that would go a long way to thwart scrap metal thieves, who are an immense problem.

Detroit is full of drug addicts and other desperate people who steal anything they can sell to get money. A friend of mine sold her house after she found thieves trying to steal the copper gutters off the side of it in the middle of the day. 

Well, State Representative Rashida Tlaib comes from a Detroit district where that is an immense problem. She is a liberal Democrat in a body dominated by conservative Republicans. But for three years she worked hard on forging a compromise. And she got one.

The Michigan House of Representatives finally passed a bill that, as she told me “would have made a huge positive impact in the fight to stop scrap metal thieves.” It would have required a three-day payment delay for the three items most often stolen -- copper wire, catalytic converters, and air conditioning units.

Those selling scrap metal would also have to be paid by check, not in cash. The bill also would have required dealers to keep the license plate number of anyone selling scrap metal.

None of that would bother the honest person who brings in an old window air conditioner. But it would go a long way to instantly stop theft, Tlaib said, by making it harder to sell stolen goods. “Scrap metal thieves steal because they can sell and get quick cash,” no questions asked, Tlaib said.

Fifteen states have enacted legislation similar to hers. Scrap metal theft has declined sharply in them. But the Michigan Senate voted to help out the thieves.

They took those crime-stopping provisions out of the bill. They would have replaced them with a toothless database of scrap metal transactions that would have been maintained by the dealers themselves. People could still come in with a shopping cart full of stolen metal and get cash for it.

The drive to weaken the bill was led by State Senator Mike Kowall. It isn’t clear why he was opposed to the stronger provisions aimed at stopping thieves. But he was.

Tlaib said if the bill came back to the house, she would work to kill her own legislation, and that was that. She vows to keep working to, “pass a tough law that will actually deter scrap metal theft so that we can again have safe, vibrant communities,” she said. Maybe next year, somebody will care.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.