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Missouri animal measures spurred by compromise

Missouri animal measures spurred by compromise

February 12th, 2012 by WES DUPLANTIER, Associated Press in News

Several Missouri lawmakers are pushing animal welfare and farmer freedom bills they say came out of debate over Missouri's new dog breeding regulations.

Voters approved new requirements for dog breeders in 2010, including limits on breeding frequency and the number of breeding dogs someone could own. The measure passed with 52 percent of the vote, but the following spring, lawmakers passed legislation superseding much of the ballot measure and then implemented an agreement between agriculture groups and animal organizations. Gov. Jay Nixon signed that compromise last year.

Now, lawmakers are looking at a tax break for animal shelters and constitutional amendment guaranteeing farmers' rights.

A bill filed this past week by Rep. Jeanne Kirkton would exempt Missouri animal shelters from paying state licensing fees. Animal shelters lost their exemption from the licensing fees under a law approved in 2010. Under the legislation passed last year amid the controversy over dog breeding, the fees for shelters, commercial breeders, kennels and others were increased from a maximum of $500 up to $2,500.

"Most of these shelters are struggling to survive," said Kirkton, D-St. Louis County. She said any lost revenue for the state would be worth it if shelters can stay open to help animals.

Several animal groups have argued it is unfair to levy a licensing fee on shelters - many of which are run by not-for-profit organizations.

Two other measures sponsored by Republican lawmakers aim to limit the scope of future animal-related laws, illustrating the reservations some in agriculture still feel about animal welfare groups even after last year's compromise over dogs.

Rep. Tom Loehner is backing an amendment to the state constitution that would forbid voter-enacted laws governing how farmers raise cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, goats, horses and rabbits. He said his proposal is driven by concern that people in urban areas might construe some farming practices as cruel instead of economically necessary.

For example, he said TV ads supporting the dog breeding ballot measure showed animals in dark, cramped cages. Opponents of the measure said breeders must use cages of a certain sizes in order to house enough dogs to stay in business.

"It really showed that people in agriculture don't have the money to educate 6 million people in this state," said Loehner, R-Koeltztown. "So that means that we have to protect ourselves."

Another proposed bill would forbid laws that give animals the same legal rights as humans. Sponsoring Rep. Ward Franz, R- West Plains, said he fears the law eventually could treat livestock the same as humans. He cited a recent court case in which People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld, claiming the theme park's whales had a constitutional right not to be held in tanks that are too small. The case was recently dismissed.

House committees approved both measures last week.

And it's not just legislators who are looking to make more changes after the fight over dog breeders.

Some organizations that backed the dog breeding ballot measure now are seeking a new initiative that would require lawmakers get a three-fourths majority in both the House and Senate to alter voter-passed measures. Rep. Scott Sifton, the spokesman for the group Your Voice Counts, said the measure is a response to the changes lawmakers made to dog breeding measure and other initiatives.

Sifton, D-St. Louis County, said the three-quarters-majority threshold might encourage legislators to negotiate compromises before an issue goes before the state's voters.

"The only reason some of these measures ever get to the ballot in the first place is because we see years of legislative intransigence in reaching a reasonable compromise," he said.

But some lawmakers are concerned it would make it nearly impossible for the Legislature to make changes to voter-approved laws. Franz said that could allow outside groups to push animal laws through the ballot measure process by focusing on the state's metropolitan areas.