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An interesting development in 2013 state legislation was Maryland’s passage of SB 820, which imposes a fee on pet food to fund a statewide spay-neuter program aimed at low-income communities. Despite opposition from the pet food industry, the amended bill passed overwhelmingly in both houses of the Maryland legislature. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the bill in to law this summer, effective October 1 (click here  to see the enrolled version as executed by the governor).
Proponents trumpeted an earlier public opinion survey showing that a significant majority of pet owners in Maryland favored a so-called pet food tax to support spay-neuter initiatives. What’s interesting is that both Oregon and West Virginia recently defeated similar legislation. Each of these states featured a highly effective social media campaign targeting pet owners that generated a great deal of pressure on legislators to defeat the bill and not “unfairly” saddle pet owners with paying for state programs.
A key difference between Maryland and Oregon may have been the absence of this social media campaign. Also, the Oregon fee would have financed state agricultural programs for food animal production, while the Maryland fee specifically limits use of funds to spay-neuter initiatives for companion animals. No one knows if pet owners value this distinction, as some have suggested.
So what are the open questions as we head into 2014 state legislature sessions around the country?
> First, will other budget-strapped states follow Maryland’s lead and single out the pet industry—pet food in particular—for special use fees (let’s call them taxes)? Rumors of possible legislation in one East Coast state are out there but not yet confirmed.
> Second, will pet owners outside Maryland tell pollsters they’re OK with pet food taxes provided the funds are used for spay-neuter or other companion animal programs? Or will pet owners protest?
> Third, should we chalk up this development in Maryland to its status as one of the bluest of blue states? If so, that narrows the list of possible 2014 venues.
> Fourth, will opponents tap social media to rally pet owners as so effectively happened in Oregon, where the issue turned around in a matter of one week?
For what it’s worth, this blogger does not expect that the issue will have nearly as easy a time anywhere else as it did in Maryland, whether blue state or red. Oregon and West Virginia are more likely to be the norm, with Maryland an outlier. Stay tuned.
Mark Cushing, JD, is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group , providing government relations and strategic services for various animal health, veterinary and educational interests. He maintains offices in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., and is a frequent speaker at veterinary conferences.