UPDATE: Pennsylvania Senate approves cost of care bill, 47-3.
Two bills with major implications for animal welfare are poised to take great leaps forward in the General Assembly as it meets in a rare Sunday session, the last day of the fiscal year, to finish the budget.
First, the Senate is expected to approve a bill to require anyone charged with animal abuse to pay for the cost of the care of their animals for the duration of the court proceedings - or surrender them to a shelter.
Consider the Pennsylvania SPCA which spent $1 million to care for 250 sick cats rescued from Tiger Ranch feline "sanctuary," near Pittsburgh or Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter which has so far spent close to $80,000 to care for five huskies while owners appeal their cruelty conviction to the state Supreme Court or the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area and Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue of Mt. Airy, Md. which have as of now spent upwards of $100,000 caring for a herd of wild horses - including stallions and seven pregnant mares which in the past three months have delivered foals - while owner Rebecca Roberts of Palmyra appeals her conviction on cruelty charges.
And that's just a tiny sample of the enormous costs that scores of shelters incur daily from cruelty cases, costs that are rarely, if ever, recovered from convicted animal abusers.
In addition, the current situation forces animals are forced to live in kennels or in transitional shelter environments rather than allowing rescue groups to find suitable adopters.
The bill's proponents fought off a last minute attempt by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau to exempt all farm animals - which would presumably include even dogs in puppy mills. The American Kennel Club also opposed the bill, saying it deprived animal owners of their due process rights.
Animal law expert Bruce Wagman, who helped draft the bill, said animal owners are afforded due process rights in the form of an immediate hearing in which humane officers must prove their case.
An amendment would allow the court to establish a defendant's "indigent" status to determine whether they could afford to pay the bills. This would apply only in cases where a single dog was involved, not multiple dogs, cats, horses or other animals.
The current bill would cap fees at $15 a day, plus medical care.
Because it was amended, the bill must return to the House for concurrence, but that could happen as early as today.
In the House today, a surprise development that will have enormous positive impact for dogs and other shelter animal. Lawmakers are set to consider a bill to allow the cash-strapped Dog Law Enforcement Office to retain 100 percent of the fines issued in dog law cases is set to be voted in the House.
Since 1987 all fines collected by the office over $70,000 have been diverted to the Judicial Computer Augmentation Account, in other words, to pay for computer upgrades.
At the time, when dog law was weak and rarely took violators to court, $70,000 must have seemed like a threshold the agency would never meet.
How times have changed.
According to bill sponsor Rep. Kathy Watson (R., Bucks), between 1998 and 2011 the dog law fines and penalties accumulated over $3.5 million. However, almost $3 million was forfeited to the judicial computer account (average of $226,000 / year).
The total revenue retained by the Dog Law Restricted Account during those same years was only 26% of the total monies collected.
The bill would exempt dog law fines and penalties from the law, allowing monies collected to remain in the Dog Law Restricted Account. This is the same "restricted" account that Gov. Rendell and the legislature raided, to the tune of $4 million, in 2010 to fill a budget hole.
With revenues slipping away state dog law officials in 2011 predicted the account could run a deficit by the end of this year. Efforts to curb costs, including not filling job vacancies, reducing the full time dog law veterinarian to part time status, zeroing out the shelter grant program and boosting license sales has so far helped avoid fiscal disaster.
The increase in revenue will help toward sustaining the operations of the Office of Dog Law Enforcement in conducting its statutory obligations of inspecting 2,500 licensed kennels, investigating dog bite incidents, and apprehending dogs running at large, said Watson.
Dog law officials declined to speculate on what the influx of $200,000 a year or more could mean for agency operations, so we asked dog law advisory board member Tom Hickey for his thoughts.
"Number one: fill all the vacant dog warden positions, hire a full time vet and restore the grant program," he said.
The shelter grant program, which just three years ago distributed $638,000 in funding, was zeroed out in this year's agriculture department budget request. The money helped shelters with basic operating expenses, like electric bills.
Hickey also said lifting the cap on the amount of fines dog law could keep each year also would increase the incentive for dog wardens to prosecute violators.
"If they remove the requirements that we fund the court system, it gives the department the ability to do what they're supposed to do, which is to protect dogs," he said.