Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, the Senate chairman of the committee, said Tuesday that some lawmakers were reconsidering certain provisions of the package, which was supported with a 12-1 committee vote on May 19. Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield, cast the lone vote against the measure.
The concept of the new tax on pet food materialized recently during discussions over a bill called “An Act Pertaining to the Breeding and Selling of Dogs and Cats,” which resulted from a study group that explored the regulation of dog- and cat-breeding facilities.
The new tax – an additional 1 percent on top of the state’s existing 5 percent sales tax would fund the state’s animal welfare program, particularly instances were the state is forced to seize animals that are not being cared for adequately by their owners. Nutting said there have been five large-scale seizures of animals in the past year that have strained the state’s ability to deal with them.
The current seizure effort is funded by dog license fees, but Nutting said the funding is inadequate because less than half of all Maine dog owners license their dogs. In addition to bolstering the animal welfare program, Nutting said the core of the proposal is to spread the cost to all pet owners.
“Right now, it’s such a narrow base of folks who are funding the whole cost of the animal welfare program,” he said. “This is by far a much fairer way to fund animal welfare.”
To offset the tax, the fee for licensing dogs would drop by $3, according to the bill, which had not yet been printed as of Tuesday.
“Frankly, most people are going to break even on this,” said Nutting. “This penny on the sales tax might cost you $3 a year. To register your dog, it will save you $3.”
Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, said he also supports the proposal. He originally proposed an increase on the tax for rabies vaccines as a means of supporting animal welfare, but the committee opted instead for the tax on pet food.
“The whole point of this is to spread out the cost of animal welfare over more animals, instead of just a few dog owners,” said Nass. “It’s going to be tough to get Republicans to support a tax increase, but I think it’s much more fair. Animal welfare is not going to go away; it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Nutting said the reduction in the cost of dog licenses was one of the provisions that is being reconsidered. Asked what is likely to happen to the bill, Nutting said Tuesday afternoon that he didn’t know. The committee, which had finished its business for the session, would need permission from legislative leadership to reconvene, which as of Tuesday had not been granted.
Curtis Picard, executive director of the Maine Merchants Association, objected to the fact that the new tax was proposed within the committee process and inserted into the bill without a public hearing. He opposes the provision because it creates a hardship for retailers.
“Retailers are the unpaid tax collectors in this state,” he said. “The Legislature is always looking to retail to collect some new tax to fund a new idea. People are cutting down on what they’re feeding their pets. A 1 percent tax might not sound like a lot, but it is.”
Kurt Gallagher, spokesman for the national Pet Food Institute, said Friday he had just recently learned of the proposal.
“We are working on a coalition to turn this around,” he said, who added that similar proposals have been defeated this year in Washington and West Virginia. “This is a tough economy and any additional taxes make it harder for consumers to be responsible pet owners. This singles out pet owners for something that is a community issue. Responsible pet owners have not caused this problem. It’s not fair.”
Dr. Kate Steinhacker, president of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, said that veterinarians and animal lovers statewide stand ready to help when animals are seized, but that funding is needed to back up those efforts. Steinhacker said her organization supports the Agriculture Committee’s bill, but sees other ways the problem could be helped, such as dedicating tax revenue from the sale of animal medications to benefit animals. Currently, that revenue pours into the General Fund, according to Steinhacker.
“We veterinarians believe it is unethical to force sick animals to pay for Maine’s General Fund. The animal welfare department would be able to do its important work of rescuing suffering animals and providing low-cost spay and neuter services to low-income Mainers if the Legislature appropriated funds in an ethical manner,” she said.
“This needs to happen,” she said.