ST. PAUL — Grappling with a pandemic and facing down the constitutional mandate to deliver a balanced budget, the Minnesota Legislature entered into its 2021 session almost guaranteeing to leave lesser proposals in the dust.

Among the pieces of legislation vying for attention are several united in their aim to curtail the theft of catalytic converters. Yet the two separate approaches to combating the crime have been slow to work through the legislative process, leaving open the possibility that neither will pass by the time this session concludes.

Sen. John Marty, chief author of one catalytic converter bill, said recently there is a "decent chance" for it to become law but agreed the legislature has been slow to act on it.

"I really do think what we have is something that would work," he said.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville

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Lawmakers are broadly seeking to address a spate of recent catalytic converter thefts in Minnesota by requiring additional forms of documentation on them. Doing so would make it harder for converter thieves to resell their stolen wares to scrap dealers and recyclers, the argument goes, robbing them of the incentive to steal the things in the first place.

Locally and nationally, law enforcement officials have reported a surge in catalytic converter thefts believed to be driven by the high prices commanded by the precious metals used to manufacture the devices, which aid in the reduction of vehicle emissions. Palladium and rhodium were trading for thousands of dollars per ounce in early February, when Minnesota lawmakers first introduced the anti-theft legislation.

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That money is, of course, for the businesses that process the used devices to collect. A thief selling a stolen converter to a scrap yard or recycler, by contrast, stands to make only a few hundred dollars. But that can still be a substantial sum for the individual who has to invest only their time in order to acquire one.

The effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. economy may also be to blame for the rash of thefts. Jeremy Estenson, who lobbies for the firm Stinson on behalf of the scrapping industry, compared the phenomenon of converter thefts to one observed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when thieves stole valuable copper piping from vacant, foreclosed homes.

"Typically, when you see the economy sputtering," he said, the value of precious metals increases.

So too do thefts.

For victims, on the other hand, the ordeal of replacing a stolen catalytic converter can be costly, with parts and labor running in the low thousands. Sen. Karin Housley, author of a catalytic converter bill in the Minnesota Legislature, would know, having recently become a victim of catalytic converter theft herself.

"Until you go to start up your car and it sounds like a winning race car," she said, "you don’t realize all the steps that it takes to get a new one."

Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater
Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater

Yet disagreement persists among lawmakers over how best to deal with the matter. That's partly because, as police have said in legislative hearings, it's rare to catch a thief in the act of cutting loose a catalytic converter from the underside of a car. And it's no easier to prove that catalytic converters found in an individual's possession were obtained illegally: The devices, which control exhaust emission, lack vehicle identification numbers, and bear little in the way of distinguishing markings that can be used to link them with specific makes and models.

SF 890, the bill introduced by Marty, DFL-Roseville, proposes to address the dilemma by making it illegal for anyone other than a licensed scrap dealer to purchase a used catalytic converter, in addition to imposing new documentation requirements. It would also forbid scrap dealers from paying for used converters with cash, and require them instead to use checks or electronic payment systems.

"I think ours addresses some of the issues that make it such a difficult, thorny issue to deal with," Marty said.

Marty's SF 890 enjoys the support of one Republican, Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, who has added his name to its counterpart's list of authors in the House.

Law enforcement officials have voiced support for both Marty's bill and its competitor. Unlike SF 890 (and its companion bill in the Minnesota House), however, SF 206 boasts bipartisan support.

Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers both have signed on as sponsors for SF 206 and its companion version in the House, neither of which bans cash transactions or limits purchases only to licensed dealers.

SF 206 has industry support as well, with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a national trade group on whose behalf Stinson has lobbied, having aided in crafting it. Housley, R-Stillwater, its chief author, said it has the "full support" of the scrap and recycling industries.

According to Estenson, however, it may yet be rereferred to a more law or public safety oriented Senate committee, as it would make violating the laws it proposes a misdemeanor offense. (HF 330, its House counterpart, was amended last month to instead make violation of the proposed law a civil penalty, a less serious type of offense that can actually incur heftier fines.)

Referring a bill to a different committee, while not uncommon, can add to the amount of time it takes to pass, affecting its odds of becoming law. Marty's bill, too, was recently sent from a public safety committee to one that deals with commerce.

None of the catalytic converter bills received committee approval by the legislature's first major deadline for the session of Friday, March 12, either. Despite that, lawmakers can still choose to advance it.