Missouri Legislature passes measure to weaken Prop B

2011-04-14T09:30:00Z 2013-01-21T11:59:03Z Missouri Legislature passes measure to weaken Prop BBY VIRGINIA YOUNG vyoung@post-dispatch.com > 573-635-6178 stltoday.com

JEFFERSON CITY • The fight over Proposition B, the voter-approved crackdown on Missouri's dog-breeding industry, landed on Gov. Jay Nixon's desk Wednesday.

The Legislature gave final approval to a bill wiping out key provisions of the law passed by state voters in November, such as a 50-dog limit for each breeding operation and a requirement for larger, ground-level cages with access to the outdoors.

The House voted 85-71 to pass the bill. Earlier, the Senate passed it 20-14.

Nixon declined to state an opinion of the measure until his staff completes a review. But whether he signs or vetoes it, the issue shows no signs of going away. In fact, animal welfare groups are already girding for another battle at the polls.

Invoking a little-used constitutional provision, Proposition B's supporters said if they can't persuade Nixon to veto the bill, they will circulate petitions to trigger a referendum on it.

"We're prepared to start gathering signatures immediately," said Cori Menkin, senior director of the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

If they collected a total of roughly 90,000 signatures in six of the state's nine congressional districts by mid-August, the bill would be put to a public vote, probably in November 2012. In the meantime, Proposition B would take effect as scheduled this November.

On the other hand, if Nixon vetoes the proposed changes, the dog-breeding industry is likely to try again in the Legislature or challenge the law in the courts.

NO MIDDLE GROUND

For weeks, the two sides had been meeting intermittently behind the scenes to look for middle ground, but none emerged.

Rural legislators contend Proposition B would put all 1,400 of the state's licensed dog breeders out of business and could lead to limits on other forms of animal agriculture.

"If this thing goes into effect, thousands of people are out of work, they lose their jobs and they lose their investment," said the bill's handler, Rep. Tom Loehner, R-Koeltztown.

Animal welfare groups argued that new standards of care are needed to protect dogs from abuse and end the state's reputation as the "puppy mill" capital of the country.

Under current law as well as the bill passed by the Legislature, dogs can be housed in stacked cages that are only about 6 inches longer than the dog on each side.

"We feel they need more than 6 inches of space to live their entire lives in," Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, said at a recent hearing.

Proposition B would increase the space requirements — for example, to 12 square feet for small dogs and 30 square feet for large dogs.

The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sunk millions of dollars into the campaign for Proposition B, which passed with 51.6 percent of the vote.

Most rural counties overwhelming rejected it while urban and suburban areas backed it. Those same divisions generally held true in the Legislature.

VOTERS' WILL

Opponents said it was too soon to rewrite the law and voters' will should be respected.

"My constituents feel this is a mockery of the democratic process," said Rep. Margo, McNeil, D-Florissant. "A number of people have asked me, 'Why did I bother to vote?'"

Loehner contended that voters misunderstood Proposition B's impact and his bill would better protect dogs because it would provide more enforceable standards and more money for inspectors.

Currently, the state charges breeders a $100 base fee plus $1 per puppy sold, with the total fee capped at $500 a year.

The bill would raise the cap to $2,500 and assess an additional $25 fee to help pay for Operation Bark Alert, the hot line that encourages people to report unlicensed breeders.

"There are bad actors out there, but let's not punish the good guys," said Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy. "All these folks have families who are dependent on the raising of dogs for their very livelihood."

Some of the bill's supporters said they had visited kennels in their legislative districts and seen no signs of abuse. Underscoring the split on the issue: While city residents may pamper dogs as house pets, legislators with agricultural backgrounds tended to view dogs as livestock.

"Dogs are property," said Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe. "Dogs don't have rights."

As is his usual practice, Nixon declined to give any hint as to whether he would sign the bill.

"Until I've had a chance to drill down on this, I wouldn't want to be overly specific," Nixon said.

Nixon noted that he had recently sought funds to beef up enforcement of dog-breeding regulations. The Senate Appropriations Committee added $1.1 million to the Department of Agriculture's budget to pay for additional inspectors. The state currently has 12 inspectors.

Proposition B's supporters have applauded tougher enforcement but said that won't solve the problems unless the standards of care are also clear.

For example, the bill scraps the requirement for an annual, hands-on veterinary exam for each dog. Instead, it would require two walk-through "visual inspections" annually by a vet, with follow-up exams for dogs that appeared injured or sick.

THE REFERENDUM ROUTE

If the animal welfare activists go the referendum route, history is in their favor.

The procedure was last used in 1982, when voters rejected a bill that would have permitted longer and heavier trucks on Missouri highways.

According to a study by David Valentine of the Institute of Public Policy at the University of Missouri-Columbia, voters have rejected 24 of the 26 bills submitted to a referendum since 1914.

In other words, in nearly 100 years, voters approved the Legislature's action only twice, and those both occurred in the 1920s.

Separately, groups that supported Prop B plan to circulate initiative petitions to amend the state constitution to make it harder for legislators to repeal a citizen initiative. That proposal, which also could be on the November 2012 ballot, would require a three-fourths vote in both chambers to repeal measures passed by voters.

The bill is SB113.

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