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HARRISBURG – Partisan divisions are hampering legislation to increase funding for the Pennsylvania office responsible for exposing puppy mills and dealing with dangerous dogs, potentially endangering the state’s ability to enforce stricter laws on the animal cruelty.
Legislature left for the summer without voting on bills that would have raised dog licensing fees from $ 6.50 to $ 10 per year, increase say advocates critical to address staffing gap and a serious funding gap within the State Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.
Without a new and permanent stream of income, they say, the office will soon be unable to perform its basic functions.
In an interview this week, State Representative Dan Moul, R-Adams, who chairs the House committee where one of the bills languished, said the fee increases are politically unpopular. He and other House Republicans fear a public backlash if they approve a fee hike – Moul noted he still receives angry calls from voters about a gas tax hike unrelated he voted for almost ten years ago.
“Believe it or not, people will spend thousands of dollars to buy a dog, but you increase their dog license fee by five dollars, they have a seizure,” Moul said.
Instead, Moul said he had worked with Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding on another plan that was to incorporate the proposed increase into a budget bill, as lawmakers might be more likely to approve a large budget package even if it includes a like clause.
But Moul said Redding was unable to close the deal with the GOP-controlled Senate. The Agriculture Department did not respond to a question about the arrangement, but said in a statement that the secretary “has met individually with members of the House and Senate about the need to increase fees. license for dogs “.
State officials have warned for years that the office, an often overlooked branch of state government, is strapped for cash. The office is almost entirely funded by license fees paid by dog owners, although the price last increased in 1996.
To keep the office afloat, the Department of Agriculture is redirecting $ 1.5 million to the office this year from its own budget. But it’s a temporary fix – and still endorsed by taxpayers, said Senator Judy Schwank, D-Berks.
“Taxpayers are paying for it,” said Schwank, one of the sponsors of legislation to increase license fees. “It is taxpayers’ money that finances all of the operations of the Ministry of Agriculture.”
Even with the $ 1.5 million from the Department of Agriculture, the office is unable to fill vacancies. Fourteen counties in Pennsylvania do not have a dog sitter responsible for inspecting kennels, accommodating stray dogs, and enforcing all dog laws.
“As a ministry, we feel challenged to balance the public’s expectations of the law with the resources to do this job due to the lack of fees,” said Redding, secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, in a previous interview.
The Humane Society of America publishes an annual “Horrible Hundred” report featuring a list of poor dog breeding facilities – commonly known as puppy mills – across the country. According to Kathleen Summers, director of outreach and research at the Humane Society, Pennsylvania “usually counts very heavily on this list,” often with repeat offenders. This year, eight facilities in Pennsylvania are on the list – the fourth highest of any state.
“The fact that the Bureau of Dog Law will be less able to stay on top of these [kennels] is of great concern to us, ”Summers said.
Pennsylvania is known among animal rights activists for having a high volume of puppy mills, which has earned it the title of “Puppy Mill Capital of the East.” In an effort to shed that reputation, lawmakers in 2008 passed a set of bills setting the country’s highest standards for licensed kennels, leading to a crackdown on unsafe and unsanitary facilities. These guidelines increased minimum cage sizes, banned wire floors, and required veterinary care and exercise for dogs.
The state’s ability to continue to apply these rules is now threatened.
“My Republican counterparts always say they don’t want to raise taxes,” said Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne, who drafted one of the bills to raise fees. “I say for the love of God, this is an economical solution. It is a suitable solution that will cost less in the long run.
Lancaster County is of particular concern, according to Summers and Redding. It is one of 14 counties that does not have its own keeper but has twice as many licensed kennels as any other county, including three on the “Hundred Horrible” list.
Since several counties lack dog sitters, local law enforcement is often tasked with picking up appeals related to the Dog Act.
“[Local law enforcement officials] I don’t like it… but at the end of the day, if someone has a dangerous dog, or their dog is loose or lost or whatever, they get the calls, ”Redding said.
With a stand-alone fee increase bill too unpopular to roll out of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, the earliest the office is likely to see a new source of revenue is next summer during the budget process.
But Schwank, Redding and others are hopeful that when lawmakers meet again this fall, they will pick up on the issue with enough members on board to pass the bill. The future of dog welfare in Pennsylvania depends on it, advocates say.
“Democrats and Republicans, and everyone in between, are all dog lovers,” Summers said. “[Lawmakers] don’t listen to their constituents if they don’t pass budgets that protect dogs because no one wants Pennsylvania to be seen as a puppy mill and everyone wants dogs to be protected.
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