Not a session goes by without Pennsylvania lawmakers championing the success of legislation that increase penalties for crimes committed against law enforcement or stiffening the punishment for drunk driving or other offenses involving drugs and alcohol.
So why can't the General Assembly pass a bill to hold people criminally liable when their dogs attack service dogs? After all, the legislature approved a bill several years ago that increased the penalties for humans who attack service dogs.
What started as an effort by Rep. John Evans' predecessor to ensure that people who own dogs that attack service dogs are held accountable, has turned into a 15-year- long legislative ordeal.
Evans (R., Erie) thought his bill was close to crossing the finish line in the Senate. After all, it cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 11-1 (Sen. Mary Jo White, a Republican from Venango County, was the lone no vote).
Then suddenly an amendment appeared stripping out the criminal penalties.
Evans said he can live with the charge being downgraded by the Senate from a second to a third-degree misdemeanor. (In Florida a dog attack on a service dog is a felony offense.)
The Senate left a civil penalty, but Evans said that would be pointless.
"If someone couldn't pay, they couldn't pay and then they would have no record either," he said.
Evans' bill also would require the defendant to pay vet bills for the injured dog and, if necessary, the cost of replacing the dog. Evans was so incensed he held up a Senate bill in the Game and Fisheries committee which he chairs.
"I was really upset," said Evans. "I'm retiring in November and this is really important to me."
Evans is stumped about why the bill - versions of which are the law in New Jersey and at least 36 other states - is facing so much trouble now after sailing through the House, 194-4.
"People are scared of the legislation," said Evans, adding he knows of no organized opposition. "There are areas in the country where people let dogs run free."
Since taking office in 2001, has struggled to move the bill foward on behalf of Passell Helmenski, an Erie-based artist whose current and former service dogs were attacked multiple times, and other disabled Pennsylvanians whose service dogs have suffered similar attacks.
(For more background on Helmenski and other service dog attack cases see Suite 101 blog.)
Helmenski was left nearly blind 20 years ago by a stroke brought on by an assault, and had earlier sustained injuries that limited her ability to use her hands. Her first dog, Ariel, was attacked six times and her current dog, Kate, has been attacked twice. Many of the attacks took place in Helmenski's own yard.
"Service dogs are not trained to fight back," said Evans. "And the cost to replace them is as high as $50,000."
The session clock is ticking. If the bill is not signed into law by Gov. Corbett by the end of session in October, it will have to be reintroduced next year. That is, if disabled advocates can find a sponsor.
Evans said he feels that he has done all he can do to get the bill through.
"I want to get this done before I leave," he said.