Monday, April 18, 2011

Lawmakers Go Against The WIll Of Their Voters In Missouri

BY VIRGINIA YOUNG • > 573-635-6178

April 18, 2011 JEFFERSON CITY • Rarely do legislators know what their constituents think of a particular bill. While emails and town halls offer insights, they're imprecise yardsticks. But last week, when the Missouri House voted to rewrite the state's dog-breeding rules, all 163 lawmakers had a clear window into whether their constituents backed or opposed the rules. State voters had approved them just five months earlier, with urban and suburban areas providing the winning margin. Most legislators abided by their districts' opinions. But 13 House members — including seven from the St. Louis region — voted to roll back the new dog-breeding requirements even though voters in their districts had approved them. Legislators interviewed about their votes said they agonized about overturning the will of the voters but decided that the bill was better than Proposition B, the law approved by a 51.6 percent majority last November. "It's caused me a lot of heartache," said freshman Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific. "I've never had an ulcer, but this is probably the closest I've come." Republican leaders did some arm-twisting, telling suburban legislators they should help their rural colleagues revamp Proposition B in return for rural assistance later on their bills, such as one expanding charter schools. "I don't think it was like a swap thing," said Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington. He said he helped Majority Whip Jason Smith, R-Salem, gather support among suburban legislators. The House voted 85-71 to send the new dog-breeding measure to Gov. Jay Nixon. He has not said whether he will sign it. The Senate passed it earlier on a 20-14 vote. In the Senate, Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, was the only St. Louis-area member who voted contrary to his district's position. In the House, Curtman was one of six area Republicans who bucked their districts. The others were Reps. Kurt Bahr of O'Fallon, Doug Funderburk of St. Peters, John Diehl of Town and Country, John McCaherty of High Ridge and Paul Wieland of Imperial. One Democrat — Rep. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis — voted against her district's position. Proposition B wasn't even close in her district, passing by nearly 81 percent. Wasn't that a mandate? "Being that we weren't repealing the bill, it's always good to find some type of common-ground compromise," Nasheed said. "I think modifying the bill was that compromise." Groups that pushed Proposition B adamantly disagree. They say the Legislature's bill is no compromise. "The House decided to defy the will of the voters and dismantle Proposition B piece by piece," said Barbara Schmitz, Missouri state director for the Humane Society of the United States. The bill wipes out key provisions of Proposition B, such as requirements for larger, ground-level cages with outdoor exercise runs. Under the Legislature's bill, dogs could be confined in small stacked cages with wire floors, so long as they had a solid surface to lie on. The issue is one of the most polarizing ones in the Legislature, with both sides contending their version protects dogs. Legislators who voted to roll back Proposition B bristle at talk that they repealed it. "What we did was fix the language in Proposition B that needs to be fixed, so you can actually protect puppies," Bahr said. The arguments center on: • Whether kennels should be capped at 50 breeding dogs. The Legislature's bill would get rid of the cap, which is part of Proposition B. Curtman said the provision jeopardizes the livelihoods of licensed breeders and violates their "personal freedom." Bahr contends the provision is unconstitutional, saying, "I was bound by my oath to uphold the Constitution." Schmitz, the Humane Society official, counters that Missouri would be the fifth state to impose a limit on the number of dogs. The others are Virginia, Oregon, Louisiana and Washington. "There are limits on what business can do in many settings," she said. "We feel comfortable that Proposition B would survive a court challenge." • Which version would improve enforcement. The legislators' version would assess a $25 fee to help pay for a hotline to report unlicensed breeders. Fees also would be raised so that the largest operations — those selling more than 400 puppies a year — would pay more. The fees would help support hiring two additional inspectors. The bill would authorize civil fines of up to $1,000 for uncorrected violations, and would authorize the Missouri Department of Agriculture to refer cases to the attorney general. It would create the misdemeanor crime of "canine cruelty" for repeatedly endangering the health and welfare of dogs. "Proposition B had no funding mechanism by which to actually pay for enforcement," Bahr said. Proposition B backers applaud increased fees for more inspectors, which they have sought for years. But the Humane Society says the Legislature's enforcement scheme is confusing because penalties would depend on "repeat" violations without defining that term, leaving no immediate remedy for suffering dogs. • Whether other forms of animal agriculture would be targeted. Farm groups fear Proposition B would lead to restrictions on cows, chickens, pigs and horses. The Humane Society has said it was only interested in dealing with dogs. Legislators said they put that question to rest by narrowing the definition of "pet" to cover only dogs instead of "any domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household." The Humane Society has not objected to that clarification. In the end, the bill squeaked by in the House with just three more votes than the 82-vote constitutional majority needed to pass a bill. Five House members were absent. St. Louis-area legislators who missed the vote were: Chuck Gatschenberger, R-Lake Saint Louis; Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County; and Steve Webb, D-Florissant. One member — Rep. Linda Black, D-Bonne Terre — voted "present." She is married to the dog-breeding law's chief enforcer, Nixon's agriculture director, Jon Hagler. If Nixon signs the bill, voters could get another chance to weigh in. Proposition B supporters plan to circulate petitions to put the Legislature's version to a public vote in 2012. The Humane Society's Schmitz saw little room for compromise: "So far, they've said, 'We're willing to give an inch and we want you to give us a couple yards,' and that's not realistic." The bill is SB113.

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