Members of a task force looking at the feasibility of a statewide spay-and-neuter fund are sparring over how to finance such an effort.
The Task Force to Study the Establishment of a Statewide Spay/Neuter Fund is seeking to draft legislation in time for the upcoming General Assembly session, but task force members have failed to agree on whether the fund should be financed through voluntary charitable contributions, additional fees on pet registration and rabies vaccines, or a tax on pet food.
“My concern to you all is that we need to have a steady stream, a funding resource that we can depend on year to year,” task force co-chairwoman Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Dist. 24) of Landover said at a meeting last week.
The 17-member task force, composed of legislators, veterinarians and animal advocates, was established in July 2011 and has since been studying whether a statewide fund is needed to help owners sterilize their pets and reduce the population of animals in shelters.
Spay-and-neuter procedures can cost up to $300, according to task force members, though a total cost for the program has not been estimated.
A study by the task force released in October showed that each year about 45,000 animals are euthanized in shelters statewide.
Thirty-four states currently have some form of a subsidized spay-and-neuter program, with the most successful programs cutting euthanasia rates substantially. New Hampshire has reduced euthanasia by 75 percent and New Jersey by 45 percent, said Amy E. Hanigan, a task force member representing advocacy group Maryland Votes for Animals.
A new study by the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College that was presented to the task force Nov. 14 indicated about 71 percent of Marylanders support the creation of a program to subsidize spay-and-neuter services for pets.
About 72 percent of those surveyed supported a tax of a penny or two on pet food. The pet food industry, however, is opposed to such a measure, said Kurt Gallagher, task force member and spokesman for the Pet Food Institute.
“What does pet food have to do with a spay-and-neuter fund?” Gallagher said Nov. 14. “I don’t think Maryland would tax baby food to fund family-planning programs, yet that’s just what you would be doing here.”
Gallagher said that the program should be funded through voluntary donations from checkoffs on Maryland tax returns. Other programs such as the Maryland Cancer Fund and the Chesapeake Bay Fund are financed this way.
“We will not do an income tax checkoff,” said co-chairwoman Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Dist 21) of Beltsville, adding that General Assembly leadership is opposed to new checkoffs on income tax returns.
According to the survey, more than 80 percent of respondents support paying an extra $1 to $2 when getting pet rabies shots or when renewing pet licenses.
The problem with that method, some task force members said, is that not all pet owners comply with vaccination and licensing rules.
“The compliance rate is extremely low on pet licenses, and we don’t even know how low on rabies [vaccines],” said Jennifer Brause, task force member and executive director of Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter Inc. ‘What we do know is that people buy pet food.”
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Center for Zoonotic and Vector-borne Diseases, which oversees rabies vaccination and monitors infections in the state, is opposed to an additional fee on rabies inoculation to support a spay-and-neuter fund for fear that fewer owners would get their pets vaccinated.
“I don’t think one public health issue should break another public health program,“ said Katherine Feldman, the department’s state public health veterinarian.
Before the task force can propose legislation, it also must decide how the funds would be distributed. Options include as a voucher for low-income pet owners or as grants to spay/neuter clinics to administer the funds, or some combination of the two.