OKLAHOMA CITY — A Norman lawmaker is pitching legislation that would add new permitting requirements to copper sellers, but metal dealers say the proposal would do little to stem theft and illegal sales.

Thieves that break into light fixtures or air conditioners to steal copper wiring continue to cause a major headache for taxpayers, cities, counties and the state, said state Rep. Merleyn Bell, D-Norman.

Even as the thieves make big money selling copper wiring to scrap metal dealers, Oklahoma taxpayers foot the bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs annually, she said.

“We not only fund the Department of Transportation to (install) them there originally, but now we’re having to provide additional funding for the repair of what’s been stolen,” Bell said. “So in effect, it’s costing taxpayers twice.”

Bell filed a legislative measure that raises fines and fees for thieves. It is also requires noncommercial copper vendors to obtain a permit from the Department of Agriculture before they can make a sale.

“We want to raise the fines and fees and really provide a deterrent to that behavior so that the middle man thinks twice before A. using somebody else to do their dirty work and B. costing the state or homeowners and taxpayers tons of money by selling the copper wire illegally,” Bell said.

But John Boone, the president of the Oklahoma Recyclers Association, which advocates for 30 scrap metal dealers, said Bell’s measure doesn’t make any sense.

“All these laws are in place,” he said. “If you issue a noncommercial copper vendors license, all that is really going to do is allow someone who has no business with it to sell it.”

Lawmakers already require all noncommercial copper vendors to obtain a $20 permit from the Oklahoma Tax Commission, he said.

State law, meanwhile, typically limits those allowed to sell copper to electricians, plumbers, heat and air specialists, utilities or anyone who generates copper in their everyday course of business, he said. Residents who have documentation — like a receipt — that they legally bought the copper also can sell it.

“Someone who is up to something is not going to go apply for a sales tax permit,” said Boone, who owns Northern Oklahoma Metals in Perry and Stillwater and Enid Iron and Metal.

The problem, Boone said, is that the Legislature doesn’t want to spend money to enforce the state’s existing laws. For more than a decade, Boone said his organization has unsuccessfully pressed lawmakers to hire officers to crack down on unscrupulous dealers.

“We don’t have anyone who is policing the shady dealers,” he said. “If Rep. Bell wanted to help us, she’d figure out a way to get some appropriations so that (we) might have some officers out on the ground. You can write all the laws you want, but if you don’t have any enforcement what good are they?”

Boone said there are more than 175 scrapyard locations across the state. While his group’s members comply with state statutes, he’s knows others aren’t complying with existing laws.

“A thief will not steal anything he cannot sell,” Boone said. “They’re still stealing it because they can still sell it.”

Mike Patterson, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said his agency supports the legislation. His agency installs lighting fixtures along roadways then turns over ownership to Oklahoma cities and counties.

Municipalities face the constant challenge and cost of rewiring the fixtures damaged by thieves, he said.

“Our big issue is the safety concern because we put that lighting there for a reason, and… (copper thieves) come out and strip that and eliminate that safety improvement,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.