ST. LOUIS — A judge in Cole County could determine the fate of Missouri's Proposition B, a measure set to go to voters in November that would establish new rules for dog breeding in a state that has drawn national attention for a high number of so-called "puppy mills."
The Humane Society of Missouri circulated petitions to get the proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan last week certified the petitions as containing enough signatures.
An animal owners group questions wording on the ballot, calling it biased and unfair. A hearing was Monday. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem is expected to rule this week. If he agrees with the breeders, the judge could rewrite the ballot wording.
If that were to happen, the animal owners group plans to file another suit in an effort to keep the proposal off the ballot, noting that people who signed the petitions read the current wording.
Chuck Hatfield, the attorney for the animal owners group, said there is particular concern the phrase that says violation of the proposed act would be a misdemeanor called "puppy mill cruelty."
"The phrase 'puppy mill cruelty' is a campaign slogan that doesn't belong in the secretary of state's objective summary," Hatfield said.
He also believes the state has underestimated the enforcement cost.
Attorneys for the state say ballot wording adequately describes the initiative and its likely costs.
Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah Morgan said that by putting quotation marks around the words "puppy mill cruelty," Carnahan showed that the words came straight from the petition.
Proposition B would require anyone who has more than 10 breeding dogs to meet certain standards for housing, food and veterinary care. Owners would be limited to no more than 50 breeding dogs.
Supporters of the measure say Missouri needs to turn around its image as the home of so-called puppy mills — breeding facilities known for overcrowded and inhumane treatment.
Critics warn Proposition B would affect licensed dog breeders that follow the rules and could make it more expensive to buy pet dogs. Others fear the measure could be a precursor to additional regulations for animal agriculture.
The lawsuit was filed by Karen Strange, a lobbyist for the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners. She testified that her group's goal was to "protect against the animal rights movement" on behalf of all forms of agriculture, including pet breeders, poultry farmers, pork producers and exotic animal owners.
Strange projected that about half of the nearly 1,500 licensed dog breeders in Missouri would go out of business if Proposition B passes, largely because they can't afford the proposed dog housing regulations which roughly double the amount of indoor space required for each dog, prohibit stacked cages and outlaw wire flooring.
Strange said that would mean the state would lose the licensing fees those breeders pay. Breeders are charged a $100 base fee plus $1 per putty sold, with the total fee capped at $500 annually.
The state auditor estimated in the ballot title that the proposal would cost the state $654,768, mostly to pay for animal health inspections. But Strange contended that when lost licensing fees are accounted for, the state's cost would be closer to $1.1 million.
Among those who may go out of business is Kelly Brown, who testified she breeds about 250 French bulldogs and Yorkies in Newton County. She said her family needs the income to subsidize the rest of the farm.
"If I'm reduced down to 50 dogs, it won't provide the cash flow that our operation requires," Brown said.