This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2011 - The Missouri House narrowly approved legislation Wednesday weakening various provisions of a voter-approved law regulating dog breeding, sending the contentious issue to Gov. Jay Nixon's desk.
Last November, Missouri voters approved by a slim margin Proposition B, a ballot measure restricting the dog-breeding industry. The bill required 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 prohibited breeders from owning more than 50 dogs "for the purpose of breeding those animals and selling any offspring for use as a pet" and limited those animals from breeding more than twice in an 18-month period.
State Sen. Mike Parson's legislation lifts Prop B's cap on the number of breeding dogs a breeder can own and would likely increase the number of permissible breeding cycles. It also loosens requirements for veterinarian care and exercise. The bill would allow the Department of Agriculture to raise license fees, which could lead to more rigorous enforcement.
After passing the Senate earlier this year, Parson's bill passed the House on Wednesday by a 85-71 vote. Because no changes were made to the bill, it goes to Nixon for his signature or veto.
According to a vote tally released by the Associated Press and reported by St. Louis Public Radio, 77 Republicans and eight Democrats voted for the bill, while 26 Republicans and 45 Democrats opposed. The majority of Republicans opposing the measure came from suburban districts in St. Louis County and the Kansas City area.
Of the eight Democrats voting for the bill, only one -- state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis -- was from the St. Louis region. The rest represented rural counties in the Bootheel, northeast Missouri and central Missouri. Six lawmakers did not vote.
Rural lawmakers from both parties who voted for the bill argued that they were acceding to the wishes of constituents who opposed the initiative. Some proponents of Parson's bill, such as state Rep. Tom Loehner, R-Koeltztown, asserted that Prop B would drive most breeders out of business.
"Nobody is out here to promote animal cruelty," said Loehner, who handled the Senate bill on the House floor. "Nobody is out here to promote unlicensed facilities or people doing this underground or behind the scenes or not doing a good job. If kennels ... are not living up to the standards that are out there, then by all means shut them down, get rid of them, do whatever you have to.
"But don't go out and punish everyone in this industry whether they're doing a good job or not," he added. "That's totally wrong."
Other supporters of the Senate bill said the cap of 50 breeding dogs was unfair. State Rep. Ed Scheiffer, D-Troy, said, for instance, that lawyers don't have a specific limit on the number of clients they could take up.
"If we put an arbitrary limit that (lawyers) could only get 50 (clients), there'd be an outcry," Scheiffer said.
But many urban and suburban lawmakers representing areas that supported the initiative came out against the legislation. Rep. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, said the bill didn't go far enough to provide a regulatory framework protecting dogs.
"With the water restrictions of every eight hours and the food and the space requirements and changing the definition of what exercise means, that means I'm not going to vote for the bill today," Holsman said.
Other legislators criticized the measure for altering the voters' decision. State Rep. Margo McNeil, D-Florissant, for instance, said the bill made a "mockery" of the democratic process.
"A number of people have asked me, 'Why did I bother to vote?'" McNeil said. "There are some improvements perhaps, but it basically overturns the Proposition B that was put forth. That is a travesty of justice, a travesty of our democratic process."
Some lawmakers -- such as McNeil -- unsuccessfully attempted to amend the legislation, which would have sent the bill back to the Senate.
In Nixon's Court
The bill's passage presents a challenge for Nixon, who rode to victory in 2008 with support from suburban and rural parts of the state. A veto would almost certainly ensure the bill's legislative death since the vote in neither chamber came close to the two-thirds supermajority needed to override a veto.
When asked in March about whether he would veto such legislation, Nixon said he doesn't comment on specific bills during legislative debate. He did say, however, that "any time the public passes something, the thumb on the side of the scale if it's equal goes to the side of the people's vote, whether it's on minimum wage or other things of that nature."
A spokesman for Nixon has yet to respond on what the governor will do.
Barbara Schmitz of the Missourians for the Protection of Dogs -- a group that pushed for Proposition B -- called on the governor to veto Parson's bill.
"We think that it's a travesty that the General Assembly is essentially overturning the will of the people and stripping away all of the provisions of Prop B," Schmitz said in an interview with the Beacon.
Schmitz added that her group would "seriously consider" moving forward again with another initiative petition in 2012 if Nixon doesn't veto the measure. That, she said, included putting what passed on Wednesday up for a referendum.
In the meantime, Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of America is getting behind a constitutional amendment to make it more difficult for the legislature to overturn initiative petitions. Under that proposal, three-fourths of both legislative chambers would need to approve changes to a statutory ballot item.
In a release after the vote, Pacelle said, "Gov. Nixon is the only one who can stop this miscarriage of the lawmaking process now, and we hope he will -- not only because of a concern for the well-being of dogs in the biggest puppy mill state in the nation, but also because of basic good governance and voting rights. It is wrong for lawmakers to overturn a citizen initiative before it's even taken effect."
Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers state government and politics.