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Two bills seek to crack down on catalytic converter theft

Two bills in the Texas Legislature, one motivated in part by the shooting death of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, are meant to make it easier to prosecute catalytic converter theft and to stiffen penalties for such crimes.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican, last week filed Senate Bill 465 to combat catalytic converter theft and organized crime and assist prosecutors in holding criminals accountable, according to his office.

The new bill makes possession of a catalytic converter that has been removed from a vehicle a crime, except for people such as salvage yard workers who have legitimate reason to have one.

Bettencourt filed the bill because prosecutors were having a difficult time prosecuting catalytic converter thieves because its hard to prove where they came from, according to his office said. 

"This is an appalling public safety issue that we have to get under control, criminals are willing to kill over these converters," Bettencourt said. The bill would make it illegal for anyone who doesn't work in areas that handle catalytic converters to possess one, he said.

State Sen. Mayes Middleton, who represents Galveston County, last week filed Senate Bill 432, which would make illegal possession of a catalytic converter a felony, according to his office.

Both bills were inspired in part by the death of Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Almendarez.

Almendarez was returning to his truck from the grocery store in March when he interrupted three men stealing a catalytic converter from his truck in the parking lot. Almendarez was off duty and managed to scare the three men away, but as they drove away, they opened fire, killing him. The men are charged with capital murder, but one was a teen at the time and will avoid the death penalty, according to ABC 13 Houston.

“The shooting of the Harris County deputy definitely led laws to change,” Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said. “It is so easy for criminals to do this crime and anything that will make it easier to track these parts will be a big help.”

Catalytic converters are used to filter out harmful byproducts in the exhaust gas and burns them, according to AAA Texas. The theft of catalytic converters has increased by 5,300 percent since 2019, according to AAA Texas. Catalytic converters contain valuable metals, including rhodium, palladium and platinum. Rhodium alone is worth $20,000 an ounce. Thieves typically will get between $300 to $1,500 per converter, according to AAA Texas.

House Bill 4110, which went into effect Sept. 2021, worked to address the issue of not being able to trace the origin of catalytic converters. The law required anybody attempting to sell a catalytic converter to provide the year, make, model and vehicle identification number from which it was removed and a copy of the ownership title. The law also requires scrap buyers to record their purchases and obtain and keep a thumbprint of sellers on file.

“There were successful parts of this bill, but other elements that fell short,” said Agent Daniel O’Connor, an officer with the La Marque Police Department and a member of the Galveston County Auto-Crimes Task Force. “Criminals can still find a place to sell catalytic converters they obtained illegally.

“I do think the new law is a good idea because law-abiding citizens would not be driving around with a freshly cut converter in their car.”

The La Marque Police Department is working to make criminals’ jobs even more difficult by painting catalytic converters and etching the vehicle identification number into it, La Marque Police Chief Randall Aragon said. The initiative, which the department hopes to kick off in March, is expected to be held every six months. The department also is working to get the auto-crimes task force and other local departments involved.

“Having a paint to distinguish the converter that can’t be removed and a number we could search up would be a great way to ensure that these parts are returned to their owners and criminals are held accountable,” O’Connor said. “We are seeing these crimes drop and the prices of the metals are decreasing too, which may make this crime less desirable.”


Washington
AP
Twinkle, twinkle fading stars: Hiding in our brighter skies
A new study found that the night sky is growing brighter every year, and the stars are looking dimmer

WASHINGTON

Every year, the night sky grows brighter, and the stars look dimmer.

A new study that analyzes data from more than 50,000 amateur stargazers finds that artificial lighting is making the night sky about 10 percent brighter each year.

That’s a much faster rate of change than scientists had previously estimated looking at satellite data. The research, which includes data from 2011 to 2022, is published Thursday in the journal Science.

“We are losing, year by year, the possibility to see the stars,” said Fabio Falchi, a physicist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, who was not involved in the study.

“If you can still see the dimmest stars, you are in a very dark place. But if you see only the brightest ones, you are in a very light-polluted place,” he said.

As cities expand and put up more lights, “skyglow” or “artificial twilight,” as the study authors call it, becomes more intense.

The 10 percent annual change “is a lot bigger than I expected — something you’ll notice clearly within a lifetime,” said Christopher Kyba, a study co-author and physicist at the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam.

Kyba and his colleagues gave this example: A child is born where 250 stars are visible on a clear night. By the time that child turns 18, only 100 stars are still visible.

“This is real pollution, affecting people and wildlife,” said Kyba, who said he hoped that policymakers would do more to curb light pollution. Some localities have set limits.

The study data from amateur stargazers in the nonprofit Globe at Night project was collected in a similar fashion. Volunteers look for the constellation Orion — remember the three stars of his belt — and match what they see in the night sky to a series of charts showing an increasing number of surrounding stars.

Prior studies of artificial lighting, which used satellite images of the Earth at night, had estimated the annual increase in sky brightness to be about 2 percent a year.

But the satellites used aren’t able to detect light with wavelengths toward the blue end of the spectrum — including the light emitted by energy-efficient LED bulbs.

More than half of the new outdoor lights installed in the United States in the past decade have been LED lights, according to the researchers.

The satellites are also better at detecting light that scatters upward, like a spotlight, than light that scatters horizontally, like the glow of an illuminated billboard at night, said Kyba.

Skyglow disrupts human circadian rhythms, as well as other forms of life, said Georgetown biologist Emily Williams, who was not part of the study.

“Migratory songbirds normally use starlight to orient where they are in the sky at night,” she said. “And when sea turtle babies hatch, they use light to orient toward the ocean — light pollution is a huge deal for them.”

Part of what’s being lost is a universal human experience, said Falchi, the physicist at University of Santiago de Compostela.

“The night sky has been, for all the generations before ours, a source of inspiration for art, science, literature,” he said.


News
Galveston County makes another run at use-or-lose bill for Pelican Island

GALVESTON

County Commissioners hope lawmakers will reconsider a bill forcing the Port of Houston Authority to develop more than 1,000 acres of raw land it owns on Pelican Island or sell the parcel to a buyer who will.

Local leaders have long wanted to capitalize on Pelican Island’s economic potential, especially for the Port of Galveston, and some have asserted the Houston port is sitting on its land mostly to prevent that.

The Port Authority of Houston bought the 1,100 acres more than 20 years ago when the state water code was amended to allow jurisdictions with populations of more than 2.8 million to acquire land in neighboring counties, Zach Davidson, spokesman for the county said.

It was the only entity that met the conditions to do so.

“The port said it would take about 18 years to develop the land when it was purchased,” Dane Carlson, director of economic development for Galveston County, said this week.

Houston’s lack of action was stifling economic development on the island, Carlson said.

“If they had incentive to do something with the land, they would move a little faster,” he said. “This is a statewide issue.”

Slow development of the Pelican Island land was driven by simple logistical reality, not desire to undercut the Port of Galveston, Port of Houston Authority officials said.

“Port Houston maintains diligence in seeking business opportunities for Pelican Island,” Roger Guenther, executive director of the Port of Houston said. “However, limited road and rail access remains a challenge for various industries.

“Port Houston remains committed to this enterprise and is actively engaged with TxDOT, the city of Galveston, Galveston County and other local stakeholders for the replacement of the Pelican Island Bridge to help provide the needed access to the island and the economic opportunities and development it potentially offers,” Guenther said.

The county is seeking a change that would ensure no navigation district can own property outside of its defined jurisdiction and specifically guarantee that Galveston County is free from ownership of outside ports and navigation districts.

This would be the second time local leaders have attempted to seek legislative action to resolve its frustrations with stalled development on Pelican Island.

State Sen. Mayes Middleton, who was a state representative at the time, filed a similar bill in 2019 that didn’t make it to law.

“Taxpayer money has been used to hurt free enterprise,” Middleton told the Daily News in 2019.

Unlike the Port of Galveston, the Port of Houston Authority raises money through taxes assessed on property in its jurisdiction.

“It’s obvious that over the past 20 years the only reason the Port of Houston bought that land was to cut off competition from Galveston,” Middleton said at the time.

Port of Galveston Trustee Jim Yarbrough put the a new bill’s chance for success at about what the first bill had.

It was important to keep trying, however, he said.

“The legislative process is an ugly process,” Yarbrough said. “Staying after this is still important.”

“Under an ideal situation, the Port of Houston would sell that property and it would be up to a local jurisdiction to buy it,” he said.


This weekend

A runaway legal bill has the Galveston Park Board of Trustees reviewing its procurement policies.


News
Man killed near Galveston's Boddeker Road stabbed while fishing, police say

GALVESTON

A man killed Tuesday evening was stabbed at least six times in the back while fishing on the island’s East End, police said Thursday.

Officers were called to the beach area of Boddeker Road about 5:40 p.m. where a man identified as Albert Titov, 73, of Galveston, was found dead, police said. Titov and his family recently moved to Galveston from Ukraine.

Two Black men between the ages of 30 and 40 fled the scene in a white four-door sedan before officers arrived, police said.

Titov was taken to University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and pronounced dead about 6:20 p.m. Tuesday, said John “D.J.” Florence, chief investigator for the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s office.

The cause Titov’s death was determined to be a homicide before the cause of death was determined based on his wounds. An autopsy Thursday found six stab wounds in his back, Florence said.

A motive for the crime had not been determined but there was no threat to the public, police said.

Those with information are asked to contact investigators at 409-765- 3736 or Galveston Crime Stoppers at 409-763- 8477 (409-763-TIPS).


Business
AP
US Treasury buys time for Biden and GOP on debt limit deal
The Treasury Department says it has started taking “extraordinary measures” as the government has run up against its legal borrowing capacity of $31.381 trillion

WASHINGTON

The U.S. government bumped up against its debt limit Thursday, prompting the Treasury Department to take “extraordinary” accounting steps to avoid default — as friction between President Joe Biden and House Republicans raised concern about whether the United States can sidestep an economic crisis.

The Treasury Department said in a letter to congressional leaders it had started taking “extraordinary measures” as the government had run up against its legal borrowing capacity of $31.381 trillion. An artificially imposed cap, the debt ceiling has been increased roughly 80 times since the 1960s.

“I respectfully urge Congress to act promptly to protect the full faith and credit of the United States,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in the letter.

Markets so far remain relatively calm, given that the government can temporarily rely on accounting tweaks to stay open and any threats to the economy would be several months away. Even many worried analysts assume there will be a deal.

But this particular moment seems more fraught than past brushes with the debt limit because of the broad differences between Biden and new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who presides over a restive Republican caucus.

Those differences increase the risk that the government could default on its obligations for political reasons. That could rattle financial markets and plunge the world’s largest economy into a preventable recession.

Biden and McCarthy, R-Calif., have several months to reach agreement as the Treasury Department imposes measures to keep the government operating until at least June. But years of intensifying partisan hostility have led to a conflicting set of demands that jeopardize the ability of the lawmakers to work together on a basic duty.

Biden insists on a “clean” increase to the debt limit so that existing financial commitments can be sustained and is refusing to even start talks with Republicans. McCarthy is calling for negotiations that he believes will lead to spending cuts. It’s unclear how much he wants to trim and whether fellow Republicans would support any deal after a testy start to the new Congress that required 15 rounds of voting to elect McCarthy as speaker.

Asked twice on Wednesday if there was evidence that House Republicans can ensure the government will avert a default, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it’s their “constitutional responsibility.” She did not say whether the White House saw signs at this stage that a default was out of the question.

“We’re just not going to negotiate that,” Jean-Pierre said. “They should feel the responsibility.”

McCarthy said Biden needs to recognize the political realities that come with a divided government. The speaker equates the debt ceiling to a credit card limit and calls for a level of fiscal restraint that did not occur under President Donald Trump, a Republican who in 2019 signed a bipartisan suspension of the debt ceiling.

“Why create a crisis over this?” McCarthy said this week. “I mean, we’ve got a Republican House, a Democratic Senate. We’ve got the president there. I think it’s arrogance to say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to negotiate about pretty much anything’ and especially when it comes to funding.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky, that he was unconcerned about the situation because debt ceiling increases are “always a rather contentious effort.”

“America must never default on its debt,” McConnell said. “We’ll end up in some kind of negotiation with the administration over what are the circumstances or conditions under which the debts are going to be raised.”

But any deal would also need to pass the Democratic-run Senate. Many Democratic lawmakers are skeptical about the ability to work with Republicans aligned with the “Make America Great Again” movement started by Trump. The MAGA movement has claimed that the 2020 election lost by Trump was rigged, a falsehood that contributed to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“This is not complicated: If the MAGA GOP stops paying our nation’s bills, Americans will be the ones to pay the price,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Political brinkmanship with the debt limit would be a massive hit to local economies, American families, and would be nothing less than an economic crisis at the hands of the Republicans.”

The debt ceiling was originally a fix made during World War I that enabled bonds to be issued without requiring repeated congressional approvals. But in an era of polarization and rising debt loads, the limit has been transformed into a political bludgeon. It does not reflect the actual capacity of the federal government to borrow, simply how much it is legally able to do so without congressional signoff.

In order to keep the government open, the Treasury Department on Thursday was making a series of accounting maneuvers that would put a hold on contributions and investment redemptions for government workers’ retirement and health care funds, giving the government enough financial space to handle its day-to-day expenses until roughly June.

What happens if these measures are exhausted without a debt limit deal is unknown. A prolonged default could be devastating, with crashing markets and panic-driven layoffs if confidence evaporated in a cornerstone of the global economy, the U.S. Treasury note.

Analysts at Bank of America cautioned in a report last week that “there is a high degree of uncertainty about the speed and magnitude of the damage the U.S. economy would incur.”

The underlying challenge is that the government would have to balance its books on a daily basis if it lacks the ability to issue debt. If the government cannot issue debt, it would have to impose cuts equal in size on an annual basis to 5 percent of the total U.S. economy. Analysts say their baseline case is that the United States avoids default.

Still, if past debt ceiling showdowns such as the one that occurred in 2011 are any guide, Washington may be in a nervous state of suspended animation with little progress until the “X-date,” the deadline when the Treasury’s “extraordinary measures” are depleted.

Unlike the 2011 showdown, the Federal Reserve is actively raising interest rates to lower inflation and is rolling off its own holdings of U.S. debt, meaning that recession fears are already elevated among consumers, businesses and investors.

Biden administration officials have said they will not prioritize payments to bondholders if the country passes the “X-date” without an agreement. Over the years, officials have studied this emergency option, which Treasury officials across administration have said is unworkable because of the government’s payments system.

“To some extent, the ‘extraordinary measures’ are the backup plan, and once those are exhausted the next step is a major question mark,” economists at Wells Fargo wrote in a Thursday analysis.


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