Democratic state lawmakers are aiming to crack down on catalytic converter thefts, illegal robocalls and "excessive" prescription drug price hikes as part of their consumer protection agenda this year.
Senate Democrats who held a news conference at the State Capitol on Tuesday said they hope to move these efforts — including the Republican-led robocall bill — through the Legislature quickly.
"I think every single Minnesotan has been affected by these issues. You've either spent too much for your kid's epinephrine pen or you've had your catalytic converter stolen. And virtually everyone has had a robocall that they didn't expect or want," said Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, who chairs the chamber's Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee.
The catalytic converter bill would make it illegal for someone to possess used converters that aren't attached to a vehicle, unless the parts are marked with the corresponding vehicle identification number and the date of removal.
The law would carry escalating penalties: Those who possess or purchase a used, unmarked catalytic converter would be charged with a misdemeanor. It would be a gross misdemeanor to possess or buy two unmarked converters, and a felony for three or more.
"This marking requirement will make it a lot easier for law enforcement to deal with those people that they're stopping at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning rolling around with a half a dozen catalytic converters that they don't have any explanation for how they ended up in the back of their cars," said Joseph Boche, special agent with the Minnesota Department of Commerce's fraud prevention division.
Boche said catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed in recent years, with insurance industry groups ranking Minnesota as one of the states with the most thefts.
Replacing a stolen catalytic converter can cost up to $3,000, said Sen. John Marty, the Roseville Democrat sponsoring the bill.
"It costs them thousands of dollars, huge heartache and everything else," Marty said.
Marty's bill was approved on a bipartisan vote in its first committee hearing Tuesday.
The prescription drug bill, which will be heard Thursday, would prohibit "excessive" price increases to generic or off-patent drugs. It would also establish an affordability board tasked with pricing oversight and empower the attorney general to investigate violations and take action.
A price increase of more than $30 for a one-month supply of a drug is considered excessive under the current bill. However, the bill includes an exemption for drug price increases "directly attributable" to additional costs incurred by a manufacturer.
DFL Sen. Kelly Morrison, a physician from Deephaven who's sponsoring the bill, said it would benefit patients, health care providers and insurance companies. She noted that six states have passed bills creating prescription drug affordability boards, and four more are discussing that action.
"There is a growing recognition across the country that the current system is not working," Morrison said. "Everyone deserves access to affordable medicine without exception. No one with a chronic condition, cancer or other health issue should lose their life or health because a drug was priced too high."
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) trade group opposes the bill. Reid Porter, PhRMA senior director of public affairs, said "the government price setting proposed by Minnesota lawmakers is not a good deal for patients."
"There are other, common-sense solutions that can help patients better afford their medicines today without having an expensive, bureaucratic government panel arbitrarily set prices for medicines," Porter said in a statement.
Both the catalytic converter and prescription drug bills are also moving through the House, though they haven't garnered Republican co-sponsors.
The third bill that DFL senators promoted Tuesday — increasing penalties on illegal robocalls — is sponsored by Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, and co-sponsored by Klein. It would empower the attorney general to sue and recover civil penalties of up to $100,000 from those responsible for illegal robocalls. It has no companion bill in the House yet.
"There are over 50 billion robocalls a year here in the United States," said Draheim, before the Commerce Committee approved his bill Tuesday. "If there is a case of robocalling here in Minnesota, we can do the right thing and put an end to it."