Lawmakers back pet food tax increase

Posted May 24, 2009, at 9:07 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers would see the sales tax on pet food go up from 5 percent to 6 percent under a proposal approved on a 12-1 vote by the Legislature’s Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee.

The idea of a tax expansion, however, faces stiff opposition from many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as from the governor.

Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, the co-chairman of the Agriculture Committee, argued for the bill saying it would “provide needed funding for the animal welfare program and it would provide some property tax relief. There is a lot of support for this from a number of groups that know we have a real problem in the animal welfare program.”

Nutting said the proposal would go to the full Legislature as part of a bill dealing with state animal welfare laws. He said a coalition of groups such as the Maine Federation of Dog Clubs, the Maine Association of Animal Shelters, the Maine Municipal Association and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine are supporting the proposal.

“The scenario is to distribute the cost of animal welfare — which is just going to be getting bigger and is not going away — among more companion animal owners,” said Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, who was on a working group studying the problem and raised the idea with the ACF committee.

He said the state has a serious animal welfare problem. With every “puppy mill” that is raided where animals are seized because of the lack of health and safety, the seriousness of the problem is underscored, he said.

“We have had a long history of failed attempts at solving this problem,” Nass said. “There was the attempt to require registering of cats, and that was a big failure.”

Nutting agreed and said the committee had looked at several proposals for raising various licensing fees but came back to the issue that some dog owners and dog kennel owners are paying most of the cost of animal welfare programs that care for all types of pets.

“There are less than 50 percent of the people that actually choose to license their dogs,” Nutting said. “We need to have more people paying to support these programs.”

He said the proposal would leave license fees in the local municipality, helping to reduce local property taxes. He said the proposal would shift the cost of the animal welfare program to the broader base of the additional tax on pet food and an increase from 5 to 6 percent of the sales tax on equipment used to ride a horse, such as saddles and bridles.

But taxes are never popular, and in the current recession opposition is even stronger. Leaders of both political parties say the proposal faces strong opposition, and Gov. John Baldacci said Friday he will oppose the sales tax expansion.

“There was no public hearing on this proposal, no time for the public to comment on this,” Baldacci said. “I am opposed to it.”

The governor said he understands the committee’s attempt to provide needed additional resources for animal welfare programs and encourages further discussion of the issue.

“But a tax is not the way to go,” he said.

Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, agreed. She said animal welfare programs do need additional resources, but so do many programs that were cut in the supplemental budget earlier this year and are proposed to be cut in the two-year state budget under consideration this week.

“This is just not the time to be considering raising new revenues, even if it is for a very good cause,” she said.

Mitchell said that Nutting had floated the idea at a Democratic Senate caucus but that there is little support for raising any taxes this session.

Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, the House GOP floor leader, said that like many good programs in state government, the animal welfare program will have to get by with current resources.

“I am not going to support it and I don’t imagine that the caucus as a whole will support it, and I would hope the Legislature will not support it,” he said.

Nutting is not deterred by the opposition to the measure. He said that while any tax measure is controversial, Mainers are passionate about their pets and he believes there will be strong lobbying of lawmakers to support the measure.

“People in both caucuses in this chamber are very, very aware of what happened to an incumbent senator that was on the wrong side of the puppy mill issue,” he said.

Nutting was referring former Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, who drew fire last summer over her comments about a dog breeder in York County that had been raided by animal welfare officers. Her defense of the breeder was roundly criticized by animal welfare advocates, which Nutting believes contributed to her defeat last fall.

“I think we will have a spirited debate and get a good vote at both ends of the hall,” he predicted.

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