LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers took aim at puppy mills Tuesday with a bill that would set tougher standards and tighten enforcement.
Legislative Bill 360 cleared first-round consideration on a 29-0 vote, after senators approved several amendments to the bill.
State Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo, the Agriculture Committee chairman, said dog breeders, animal welfare advocates and law enforcement representatives worked out the amended version of the bill.
The result is a measure aimed at making clear that the Nebraska Department of Agriculture can intervene in cases involving significant threats to the health and safety of dogs and cats.
It would increase license fees for breeders and pet owners and create a reinspection fee that would be charged if a state inspector had to return to a problem breeding operation.
The money would help pay for better enforcement of the state's 15-year-old program overseeing commercial dog and cat breeding operations.
LB 360 as amended would create special investigators within the agriculture department who would be appointed as deputy state sheriffs. The special investigators would work with local authorities on enforcement.
The bill also would set up a procedure for the state to impound animals and recover the costs of their care from owners.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins raised a concern that the bill represents the "camel's nose in the tent" and would lead to giving rights to animals.
"Let's be careful where we go with this so we don't do unintended damage," he said.
But Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said state law already recognizes that there are limits to how animals can be treated.
"This bill shows our humanity," he said.
Animal welfare advocates have criticized Nebraska for lax oversight of breeding operations. The state is on some lists of worst puppy mill states.
Efforts to address the issue began after the case of a Malcolm dog breeder who failed four consecutive state inspections yet continued to operate prompted a public outcry.
In 2013, a Lancaster County judge called the breeding operation an "animal Auschwitz" and shut it down for two years.
State Agriculture Director Greg Ibach vowed at his confirmation hearing this year to do more to protect animals in breeding operations. The department recently upgraded the rules and regulations for its oversight program.
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