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Declawing Prop B? Bills to weaken dog breeding restrictions gain momentum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2011 - When Proposition B regulating dog breeding in Missouri eked out a victory last November, its passage almost immediately sparked talk of repeal or rewrite among some rural legislators.

"To represent my district well, we would just as soon throw it out," said state Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, who sponsored a bill to repeal Proposition B.

Other legislation, such as a bill from a Sedalia lawmaker that recently came together in the House Committee on Agriculture Policy, changes key provisions.

Meanwhile Prop B supporters argue that the legislature's push to repeal or rewrite Proposition B usurps the will of the voters.

"We did have a statewide vote, and the voters said yes," said Barbara Schmitz, spokeswoman for Missourians for the Protection of Dogs and Missouri director for the Humane Society of the United States. "We as the proponents of Proposition B had to make the case to the voters, and the voters looked at it. They debated it and analyzed it for nearly a year. Ultimately, voters statewide supported it. It is undemocratic for lawmakers to come in and overturn the will of the people."

Narrow Passage, Legislative Backlash

Spurred on by groups such as the Humane Society of America and ASPCA, Proposition B passed last year with 51.6 percent of the vote. While the measure failed by wide margins in rural areas, it passed overwhelmingly in urban and suburban areas, such as St. Charles County, Jefferson County, St. Louis County and St. Louis.

Prop B requires anybody with 10 or more breeding dogs to provide the animals with "sufficient" food and water, "necessary" veterinarian care, "sufficient" housing and space to exercise, and adequate rest between breeding cycles. It also prohibits somebody from owning more than 50 dogs "for the purpose of breeding those animals and selling any offspring for use as a pet" and limits those animals from breeding more than twice in an 18-month period.

But opponents argue that the measure places unreasonable standards on licensed dog breeders while not going after unlicensed ones. Lawmakers filed roughly a dozen bills in the House and the Senate either to revise or repeal elements of the ballot initiative, which goes into effect this November.

State Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, has submitted a bill to revamp some of Prop B's provisions. It would:

  • Eliminate the cap on breeding dogs at 50.
  • Allow breeding dogs to produce more than two litters every 18 months by redefining "adequate rest between breeding cycles." Female dogs would not be bred to produce more "litters in a given period than what is recommended by a licensed [veterinarian] as appropriate for the species, age, and health of dog."
  • Change the definition of "necessary veterinarian care." Under Prop B, dogs must receive a yearly examination, as well as prompt treatment of any injury or illness, by a licensed veterinarian. Cox's bill would require at least two personal visual inspections, as well as treatment of "serious" illness or disease, by a veterinarian. It also deletes the requirement for a licensed veterinarian to administer euthanasia.
  • Revise definitions for "regular exercise," "sufficient food and clean water" and "sufficient housing, including protection from the elements."

In an interview, Cox said Proposition B will drive licensed breeders out of business. Cox said that his bill improves what was originally proposed.
"I think (the committee) made it more workable," Cox said. The committee "took out some of the more serious problems in the bill. But I think they left in it what was clearly what voters had been concerned about the treatment of animals."

The Missouri Farm Bureau has also pushed for some changes to the initiative. In a statement, Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst said when "out-of-state animal activists decide they know what's best for Missouri," action by the legislation "is not only justified, it's necessary."

"People who disregard the current law will disregard new laws and regulations as well, and Proposition B does absolutely nothing to address that," said Hurst.

Schmitz said her group has numerous problems with Cox's bill, including: removing the rest period for female dogs between breeding cycles, changing the standard of veterinarian care, eliminating the requirement that a vet be present when a dog is euthanized, and altering exercise and water provisions.

The group also opposes removing the cap on the number of breeding dogs cap and reconfiguring the misdemeanor provisions. And while another provision in Cox's bill increases the amount of money that the Department of Agriculture can collect for enforcement, Schmitz said the bad outweighs the good in the legislation.

"That helpfulness in the [bill], that doesn't outweigh the fact that the rest of the measure completely guts Proposition B," Schmitz said.

Overturning -- or Representing -- Voters

Proponents of Proposition B say that attempts to change or repeal the measure are overturning the will of the voters. Missourians for the Protection of Dogs, for instance, set up billboards around the state Capitol in Jefferson City with the message "Missouri voters have spoken. Will you listen?"

Like Dugger, Cox said the initiative's rejection in rural areas prompted lawmakers to act.

"Even the General Assembly reflects and modifies legislation," Cox said. "The second thing is dealing with my own constituency, I don't have any problem because they voted almost two-thirds against it."

But Schmitz said that implies that some people's votes "are more important than others."

"What they're saying is, 'Well, I come from a rural area, and rural people's votes must be more important than the suburban and urban votes,'" Schmitz said. "That takes us down a very dangerous path that is undemocratic."

Some lawmakers whose constituents voted for Proposition B -- such as state Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County -- oppose major changes. In an interview, McKenna said he took a similar stand when his constituents voted in 1999 in favor of a ballot initiative -- also known as Prop B -- to allow most people to carry concealed firearms.

The concealed-carry initiative narrowly lost statewide, with the rural areas voting overwhelmingly for it and urban areas voting against it. The suburbs were split. Jefferson County supported the ballot measure, while St. Louis County voted overwhelmingly against the concealed-carry measure -- the chief reason it failed statewide.

But in 2003, the legislature overruled that statewide vote by approving a law allowing Missourians to carry concealed weapons.

"My district voted 65 percent in favor of conceal and carry, so when it got to the legislature then, I voted to overturn the will of the voters (statewide)," McKenna said. "With Prop B, 65 percent (of his district) approved it. So I'm opposed to any changes with it."

State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, wrote on his Facebook page that he "will vote against any legislation that will repeal or amend Prop B." And state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said in a phone interview that an overwhelming amount of his constituents supported Proposition B.

"I don't think I'd probably be on board," Schmitt said. "I think I'd be at this point respecting the intent of the voters."

State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, also said his constituents supported Proposition B. And he said that would be a factor on how he would examine changes to the measure.

"It's going to depend on what the piece of legislation looks like," said Lembke. "With the amount of feedback I've heard from my constituency, it'll be very thought out what my vote is. ... I live in a system that is a representative republic. I represent my constituency."

Lembke added he would take "serious" looks at legislation going through the process.

"It's appropriate in the respect that the legislature certainly has to recognize the will of the people," Lembke said. "But the people need to realize that there are two ways to create statute in this state. And with any bill that we've passed down here, it's been my experience over the last nine years that we never get the perfect piece of legislation. And often it needs to be changed."

Enforcement At Issue

In Stream's Facebook message, the three-term lawmaker said the care of dogs depended on enforcement of regulations. And he said the Department of Agriculture simply does not have enough inspectors to investigate the 1,646 licensed breeders - not to mention unlicensed breeders.

"In the end, this issue boils down to enforcement, and until we get more inspectors, we will not achieve the change we seek," Stream said.

Without money for more inspectors, Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said there would be an "increased workload" for existing inspectors.

"Keep in mind there's been a dramatic decrease in inspectors for the Division of Liquor Control and a lot of other regulatory agencies that have inspection authority," Schaefer said. "So it's not unique to this area. But it is unlikely in this difficult budget time that we would see increased funding for that."

McKenna said Jon Hagler, the director of the Department of Agriculture, made some strides in shutting down unlicensed and problematic licensed breeders. But he said that the lack of money for more inspectors is problematic.

"My frustration was why start getting signatures and putting [this] on the ballot when we finally have a director that's doing something about the enforcement of these sad situations," McKenna said. "It all comes down to the budget situation we're in. It comes to down to hiring more investigators, which I think [Hagler] would love to see."

While her group welcomes additional money for enforcement, Schmitz said Proposition B "does not depend on additional inspectors." She said it provides additional tools to inspectors, such as eliminating what her group says are 'loopholes' to keep breeders from violating regulations.

Schmitz noted that some provisions have been unenforceable. As an example, she cites one on temperature extremes, which have to persist for four consecutive hours. "How many inspectors are going to be able to sit there for four consecutive hours to prove a real violation? They can't."

Schmitz also said local authorities -- such as sheriffs or police officers -- can enforce elements of the initiative. "It means that those officials will able to go in and respond to those calls," she said.

Schmitt said increasing enforcement may be a gathering point for lawmakers dealing with the issue.

"Where you will see a broad agreement is the idea that you have a lot of unlicensed breeders that, to my understanding, aren't affected by the changes in Prop B," Schmitt said. "I do think that will be a unifying theme. If we're serious about dealing with this issue, we probably need some more money and enforcement."

Wait And See Approach

Republican leaders in the both the House and the Senate say that while total repeal of Proposition B is unlikely, the momentum for changes exists.

"If you count all of our representatives on both sides of the aisle who are in counties that voted against Prop B, that is a large majority of the House -- Democrats and Republicans," said House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka. "You have to be aware of that political reality."

"That being said, they are very much aware that despite their personal feelings or even the feelings of their entire county or district, the proposition did pass by 51.6 percent," Jones added. "So what they've said is 'Look, in our world, if we were king for a day, would we repeal it? Yes. But we understand what the political reality is, that as a governing majority we would be criticized for that. So the people in the middle have said we want to work on some revisions to the bill."

In an audio clip on his website, Senate President Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said alterations to Proposition B could make regulations for dog breeding stronger.

"Legislators are voted on by the people, so when elections come up, they have an opportunity to make changes if legislators have done something damaging to an initiative," Mayer said.

McKenna said there are some "reasonable concerns" about some of the regulations, such as the proper temperature for dogs and a more precise definition of what constitutes a domesticated animal. But in his case, the people's will is important.

"When it comes down to it, my district voted 65 percent in favor of it," McKenna said. "I need to reflect that vote. That doesn't mean I wouldn't vote for amendments to tweak it that are common sense and necessary."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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