JEFFERSON CITY — Debate about Missouri's dog breeding industry and the regulations governing it has weaved through the ballot box, the floors of the state House and Senate and the state Department of Agriculture. And the discussion is not done yet.
Several humane groups have voiced concerns that increased costs for the state licenses of animal shelters could cause financial problems for those facilities. Shelters lost an exemption from the licensing fees under a law approved last year, and the license charges for shelters, commercial breeders, kennels and others were increased this year to a maximum of $2,500, from $500.
"It's horrible public policy," said Barbara Schmitz, the Missouri state director for the Humane Society of the United States. "Shelters and rescue groups are nonprofit organizations. They're performing a community service. They are taking in animals that have no homes."
Schmitz and other critics, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, call it a tax and warn that it could force some shelters to close. Schmitz said opponents are pursuing several options, including a lawsuit they filed earlier this year in the Capitol's home of Cole County and changes through the Legislature.
Meanwhile, commercial breeders said many of the dogs cared for in shelters did not come from their industry and that the state's shelters should help licensed breeders bear the financial cost of Missouri's regulation efforts.
"We believe that it's only fair for those facilities to pay their fair share as well," said Karen Strange, the president of the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners.
It is another example of the disagreement that has bubbled up from heightened attention paid to dogs during the past several years in Missouri.
Last year, voters approved a ballot measure that created new rules for the breeding industry, which included a limit of 50 breeding dogs and care requirements for the dogs. It passed with about 52 percent of the vote with supporters in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas outweighing opponents in rural areas and was backed by several organizations including the Humane Society of the United States. Opponents argued that the new rules would force the end of Missouri's dog breeding industry.
Before the new rules could take effect, state lawmakers stepped in and this year approved legislation first replacing much of the ballot measure and then implementing an agreement between state-based agriculture groups and animal welfare groups. The new state legislation included the higher licensing fee and required that the state Department of Agriculture update its regulations for dogs.
Breeders and welfare groups have quibbled with a few parts of those new rules. Organizations that include the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also have raised objections to portions of the final rules that deal with flooring, space, outdoor access and exercise requirements. The Missouri Federation of Animal Owners sought changes to how required veterinary examinations would be handled.
State agriculture officials said they held public meetings and reviewed thousands of comments in developing the final rules. The state agency said it was appointing a panel of veterinarians to monitor the effects of the new regulations and propose future changes.
"We take our role in animal care very seriously, and these rules are an integral part of ensuring that our licensed, professional breeders have the clear guidelines they need to move forward," Missouri Agriculture Department Director Jon Hagler said in a written statement released when the rules were finalized.
However, new state regulations do not mean no more discussion.
Fallout from the 2010 ballot measure on dog breeding could lead to a new initiative before voters next year. A couple of groups that supported last year's measure joined a new organization that is pursuing a constitutional amendment in 2012 to require a three-quarters majority vote for the Legislature to amend or repeal voter-approved laws unless the changes are referred to the ballot for a vote or the initial ballot measure allowed lawmakers to make changes by a majority vote.
Dog breeders and others said they too are ready to continue the debate if necessary. Strange said they would "actively pursue the protection of agriculture." She said there were no specific proposals or plans for a possible encore but that all their options were under consideration.
Plenty of prospects for future disagreement remain. Nonetheless, there is some agreement that things have gotten at least a little better.
Strange said: "We will see a greater improvement in the industry. I believe that when the public purchases a puppy from Missouri they can feel assured that they are getting a healthy, well-socialized, well-raised new member of their family. We now have in place rules and regulations that can be enforced. Plus, we have criminal penalties in place for those who operate outside the law or substandard facilities. We now have an assurance that our animals are the best in the nation."
Schmitz said: "We believe that progress has definitely been made. Improved veterinary care provisions is definitely a step forward. We are appreciative of that effort. There is still a lot of work to be done as we go forward."
And that could mean new discussions for Missourians to sort out.
Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.