Thu, May 23

Farmer, rancher loophole prompts Ducey to kill animal cruelty law

PHOENIX -- Fearing abuse of farm animals, Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday killed legislation that he said could open the door to lesser penalties for ranchers than homeowners.

"I know we all agree that animal cruelty is inexcusable, unacceptable and absolutely will not be tolerated in the state of Arizona,' Ducey wrote to lawmakers in his veto message.

The governor called sponsors of HB 2150 "well intentioned.' And he acknowledged that the bill does plug some loopholes in existing cruelty laws, like make it a crime to "hoard' animals.

But Ducey said that does not make the measure acceptable.

Ducey did promise to work with sponsors to recraft the proposal next year. But it remains to be seen whether there is a version that is acceptable to Ducey and also can get through the Legislature.

Existing abuse laws treat all animals the same, with laws covering everything from abandonment and "cruel mistreatment' to causing unnecessary physical injury or leaving an animal in a locked car in conditions likely to injure it.

For years, animal rights advocates have sought to tighten the laws. But they have run into repeated opposition from the farming and ranching community which feared that the statutes would be used unfairly against them.

The final version of the bill that went to the governor sought to calm those fears by creating a separate section of law when the animal involved is poultry or livestock. Proponents said that, though, that would not permit cruelty to farm animals.

Animals rights, advocates, saw something else: special protections for the agriculture community.

For example, they cited a provision which barred local governments from enacting any laws on livestock or poultry that are "more prohibitive or restrictive' than state law.

It also required police agencies to notify the Department of Agriculture if there are any allegations of abuse of farm animals, allowing that agency to participate in the investigation. While a final decision whether to prosecute would still be made by the county attorney, that raised concerns that ranchers might be tipped off by a friendly agency.

"When changing state laws relating to the safety and well-being of animals, we must ensure that all animals are protected, and mindful that increasing protections for one class of animals does not inadvertently undercut protections for another,' the governor wrote.

In fact, though, even Ducey press aide Daniel Scarpinato conceded that the legislation does no such thing. Both types of cruelty would be subject to the same penalties: a misdemeanor with a potential six-month jail term for a first offense and a possible state prison term for repeat violations.

What the governor is concerned about, Scarpinato said, is not what's in this legislation but what could come next if there are two sets of laws: one for domestic pets and one for farm animals.

"A potential exists over time to put animals at risk,' Scarpinato said.

Ducey in his veto message, said "perpetrators must be held to account and properly penalized t the fullest extent of the law.' But Scarpinato also said there was a lot of pressure on his boss to veto the measure.

He said the governor's office got about 11,000 emails on the issue, virtually all of them urging he veto the measure. Scarpinato said that is more than Ducey got when he was weighing whether to sign or veto the budget.

Follow Howard Fischer on Twitter at @azcapmedia.