Missouri Supreme Court asked to strike down animal shelter fee

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 | 6:46 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Animal advocates want the Missouri Supreme Court to strike down a law that has allowed state licensing fees to be charged to animal shelters.

The fees, which can cost up to $2,500 a year, are causing "financial stress" for some nonprofit shelters and diverting money that could otherwise be used to care for homeless dogs and cats, attorney David Cosgrove said Wednesday.

Cosgrove's law firm filed documents Tuesday with the state Supreme Court arguing that a 2010 law that authorized the fees should be struck down as unconstitutional because of the way in which it was passed by legislators. The appeal comes after a Cole County judge in August rejected a lawsuit filed by Cosgrove on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States and animal shelters in Osage Beach and St. Louis.

The dispute over fees charged to animal shelters is a byproduct of Missouri's efforts to regulate the dog-breeding industry. Voters in 2010 approved a ballot measure toughening requirements for commercial dog breeders. But lawmakers repealed key parts of that law the next year and enacted their own new regulations as part of a compromise with Gov. Jay Nixon's administration.

Shelters had been exempt from the licensing fees charged by the Missouri Department of Agriculture until a change made by a 2010 bill shortly before voters considered the broader dog-breeding initiative. The 2011 bill then raised the maximum licensing fee from $500 to $2,500 for commercial breeders, kennels and animal shelters.

Animal advocacy group have argued that nonprofit shelters should not have to pay the fees because their purpose is to help the community. Some have compared the fees to levying a hotel tax on shelters for homeless people. But opponents of exempting shelters from the fees have argued that all facilities should help fund Missouri's animal regulation efforts.

The legal challenge claims the 2010 bill allowing the animal shelter fees is unconstitutional because lawmakers changed its original purpose, which dealt with state licensing for people who use explosive devices.

Cole County Judge Patricia Joyce rejected the lawsuit in August, ruling that the challenge to the 2010 law was moot because the provisions regarding fees for animal shelters had been repealed and re-enacted as part of the 2011 law that raised the licensing charges.

The appeal to the Supreme Court argues that the 2011 law is "merely a continuation" of the 2010 law and thus the fees should be struck down because of the manner in which the 2010 bill was crafted.

"Not only did (the 2011 legislation) carry forward the unconstitutional removal of the animal shelter exemption, it imposed a maximum licensing fee that was five times higher, making the removal of the license fee exemption for animal shelters of much greater importance," said the court brief submitted on behalf of the animal groups.

The attorney general's office, which defends state laws, has not filed its written arguments in the case.

Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster, said Wednesday that the office is reviewing it.

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