In an effort to stop out-of-control copper theft in the state, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted unanimously Tuesday to put more restrictions on people who buy and sell the metal.
Last year, lawmakers required a person or business to get a permit before selling copper. The 2011 law also does not allow a recycler to pay for copper with cash. Supporters say the changes were needed to stop thieves from stealing copper from air conditioning units and catalytic converters and selling it to make quick money.
However, lawmakers say some recyclers are getting around the law by writing a check, then cashing it on the spot. “We thought we had fixed it last year,” Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) said on the House floor, “The problem is that metals now are so valuable that they are finding ways to allow people to steal. They know it goes on and they allow it because it brings in business.”
Under an amendment passed Wednesday, secondary metals recyclers would no longer be able to either cash a check or offer an ATM card as an alternative method of payment.
It would also allow a seller’s permit to be used statewide (rather than just the county which approved the permit) and would allow counties to create a $10 fee to replace a lost permit, although the original would continue to be free. The new law would also ban recyclers from purchasing manhole covers or drainage grates. Law enforcement officials say the covers have become a target for thieves.
“It’s cleaning up the problems that were with the bill we passed last year,” said Eddie Tallon (R-Spartanburg), who worked with recyclers, law enforcement, and insurance groups to craft the compromise proposal.
Rep. Gary Simrill (R-Rock Hill) said he was worried about voting on such a major change without the normal legislative process, ”I’m just concerned that we don’t just do the same thing we did last year where we pass something and (later) find ourselves correcting it.”
But Tallon and Rep. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville) said the amendment was a compromise hammered out by the parties involved and was similar to a bill that cleared a Senate subcommittee earlier this year before it was blocked by Sens. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) and Glenn Reese (D-Spartanburg). Reese has said he does not like requiring ordinary citizens to get a permit just to sell their spare metal.
The bill likely heads back to the Senate with another procedural vote Wednesday. But it’s not clear if it will be able to clear the hurdles there– especially with pension reform, restructuring, and the budget still on the agenda in the General Assembly’s final month.
While the new requirements helped lower the number of copper thefts, law enforcement officials say the thefts are still rampant in South Carolina.
Wednesday’s unanimous vote was remarkable because 34 representatives had voted against last year’s bill. Rutherford, an attorney, said he himself had changed his position after opposing the permits for years.
“It grew out of hand,” he said. “I started representing people that were strung out on drugs who simply were walking down the street, saw a house with nobody in it, and went into the air conditioner and stole the copper out of it. I have builders in North Columbia who refuse to build. Because, as soon as they put a house up, the thieves come in and steal the copper wires.”