Laslo Boyd: A scrappy little bill
Much of what happens during a General Assembly session gets little or no attention from either the public or the media. Take for example a bill, now back for its third try, that would attempt to monitor and regulate the sale of scrap metal. For most people, scrap metal doesn't sound like a very exciting topic, but in the shadows in which so much plays out in Annapolis, it's attracted a number of high-priced lobbyists, some very unusual end-of-the-session drama, and advocates for the bill scratching their heads and wondering what happened.
This year's version, SB 99: Junk Dealers and Scrap Metal Processors Required Records, was introduced by state Sens. Ed DeGrange (D-Dist. 32) of Glen Burnie and John Astle (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis, and has already received a favorable report from the Senate Finance Committee. A companion bill in the House is being introduced this week by Del. Sue Kullen (D-Dist. 27B) of Port Republic. The bill is designated as an emergency measure, which would allow it to go into effect immediately if it were passed. The quick action by the Senate Finance Committee certainly creates the impression that the measure is speeding toward approval, but the previous twists and turns that have accompanied this proposal should make any observer pause.
Behind that nondescript bill title is a growing law enforcement issue. With the dramatic rise in the price of various metals such as copper and aluminum, there has been a marked increase in the theft of those materials. Thirty-three states have enacted some sort of legislation to try to deal with the issue. Last November, Baltimore County passed its own bill in response to the problem.
The remedy proposed by this legislation is a requirement that all junk dealers and scrap metal processors maintain records on all metal brought to them for sale and make that information available electronically to law enforcement departments daily. A uniform system of licensing and penalties is also included in the proposal.
While it is not unusual for a legislative initiative to be considered in more than one session before it is finally passed, the attempt to regulate scrap metal sales came incredibly close to passage in both the 2008 and 2009 sessions. In 2009, it passed both houses by almost unanimous votes, but in different forms. In the end-of-the-session flurry of activity, the two versions weren't reconciled. The 2008 version was approved by both chambers in identical form, but was rejected on the technicality of the wrong person signing the conference committee report.
On the face of it, this relatively unexciting subject looks like it should be enacted into law easily. Who is against cracking down on people who steal metal, whether it's a catalytic converter from someone's car or the copper pipes from a home? Defining and developing appropriate remedies for crimes is a constant challenge as criminals find new outlets for their talents. This bill doesn't revolutionize the world, but it makes sense.
Obviously, not everyone wants this bill passed. A number of lobbyists, including some of the state's top 10 money earners, opposed the legislation. Amendments to exempt certain categories of scrap metal dealers were introduced by legislators in whose districts they were located. And then there were the last-second snafus that led to a bill that looked like it had passed failing without any clear explanation.
There are lots of interesting lessons that come from this tale. One is that there are an awful lot of ways to kill a proposal, and not all of them involve having the votes. Those high-priced lobbyists rack up their fees by knowing the backstairs of the legislative process and who uses those stairs.
Language and details matter as well. Even if a bill passes this session, you'll have to look carefully to see whether there are exemptions and who exactly is covered by it. In 2009, the Senate version was amended to provide an exclusion that was widely seen as benefiting a scrap metal dealer located in a key legislative district in Prince George's County.
A third lesson is that people don't always tell the truth. There's a shocking discovery. This low-visibility bill obviously had opponents, but no one is claiming credit for having killed it in previous sessions.
What we have here is a clash between a reasonable law enforcement initiative and the economic motivations of some businesses. Would the record keeping and reporting requirements add some expenses to a business operation and dry up some sources of scrap metal? Undoubtedly.
This is the kind of bill that gets little attention from the public and media, and is not really examined closely by most legislators. The committee system and the deference to the judgments of local representatives tend to prevail, and that makes sense in a body that has to consider 2,000 or so bills a year.
With all those considerations, the attempt to pass a scrap metal bill is worth close examination as it works its way through this year's General Assembly. Will this finally be its year or will there be some more last minute drama?
Laslo Boyd is a partner at Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies. He also teaches courses at both Towson University and the University of Baltimore. His e-mail address is email@example.com.