Gov. Chris Christie on Monday issued an extensive conditional veto of a bill meant to strengthen the state’s ban on puppy mills, saying the effort went too far and is “potentially unconstitutional.”
Proponents of the measure say the CV is essentially a veto, gutting the tough restrictions and harsh penalties it seeks to impose on pet shops and dealers selling animals from large facilities that breed puppies and kittens in crowded, unsanitary, and even dangerous conditions, and promised an attempted legislative override.
“It’s an absolute veto,” said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), a prime sponsor and proponent of the bill, S-3041. “It’s incredible how he just totally misunderstood the bill. He lifted any restrictions on out-of-state breeders. We are going to go for an override on May 25.”
Three strikes and out
The bill seeks to further strengthen the two-year-old Pet Purchase Protection Act, which Christie signed in February 2015, because New Jersey pet stores are still selling animals from puppy mills, according to its advocates. The $500 penalty imposed by the current law is just not large enough to deter pet stores, which can pay that and still make a profit, they say. Among the provisions Christie vetoed are penalties of as much as $20,000 and loss of license to operate in New Jersey for a third violation of the law.
Christie agreed with critics of the bill, including the American Kennel Club, that contend lawmakers did not wait long enough to see how well the changes that took effect 22 months ago are doing at curbing the import of puppy mill dogs into the state. They also argued that the bill would make it harder for New Jerseyans to buy pets and could hurt smaller, hobby breeders — those offering only one or a handful of litters a year, often from their homes.
“Rather than let that monumental, and unanimously supported, legislation take effect and assess its impact after a reasonable period of time, the Legislature waited less than a year to push a new bill that dramatically overhauls and expands the Act,” Christie wrote in his veto message. “I fully support efforts to protect New Jersey pet purchasers from unscrupulous pet dealers and pet shops … However, aspects of this bill go too far.”
The governor wrote that the bill would require the state Division of Consumer Affairs “to engage in costly, and potentially unconstitutional, regulation of pet dealers, breeders, and brokers throughout the country. This bill would also have the unintended consequence of restricting consumer access to pets, even from responsible breeders.”
Christie called the bill’s reporting requirements “onerous” and criticized the three-strikes-and-you’re-out provision for violations by pet dealers as a penalty “that could permanently close them for something as innocuous as unknowingly obtaining pets from a source that was cited, but not fully adjudicated, for technical violations in a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) inspection report which they no longer publish on their own website.”
He called his recommended changes “sensible” to both address his concerns and ensure “appropriate oversight and regulation of the industry.”
Mike Bober, president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, applauded Christie’s conditional veto, saying the protections enacted two years ago “mean New Jersey already has the strongest laws in the nation when it comes to consumers and pet protection.”
Bober said that because the CV makes roughly 100 changes to the bill, including eliminating several full sections, the council is still reviewing its specifics, but it appears that Christie “eliminated some of the more onerous restrictions on out-of-state dealers or changed them in significant, positive ways,” as well as addressing the major concerns of hobby breeders.
But Brian Hackett, New Jersey director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the CV guts the bill and is unacceptable.
“We are appalled that Governor Christie vetoed the puppy mill sales bill, demonstrating a disregard not only for the thousands of breeding dogs languishing in puppy mills across the nation but also for New Jersey consumers,” he said. “This action stands in contrast to the will of the nine counties, 100 municipalities, both chambers of the legislature, and the people of New Jersey.”
The conditional veto deletes the entire first two pages of the bill, which provide an overview of the issue and lay out statistics about problems with pet sales: HSUS estimates there are an estimated 10,000 puppy mills across the country that produce more than 2.4 million puppies a year and the USDA estimates as many as 15,000 breeders sell dogs over the Internet and are largely unregulated.
The CV also strikes several other sections, including one that spells out reporting requirements all pet dealers would have to submit to the state Division of Consumer Affairs and another that would prohibit the sale of animals from any breeder or broker unless its USDA inspection reports are available for public inspection online. It also changes the rules governing pets that shops and dealers would not be able to sell in the state from both current regulation (one direct, or serious, violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act over the prior two years) and the bill’s proposal (at least three noncompliant items on USDA inspection reports in the prior two years) to at least three separate final orders of violation in the previous five years.
Because of the wholesale changes, Hackett said his organization is urging lawmakers “to override this shortsighted veto to protect animals and consumers.”
But overrides of Christie vetoes during his more than seven years in office have been elusive, with Democrats unable to get the required number of votes at any time, despite more than 50 tries. Only rarely have any Republicans voted to disagree with Christie’s vetoes, and never in numbers large enough to send the leader of their party a defeat. An override needs 27 votes in the Senate, where Democrats control 24 seats, and 54 in the Assembly, where Democrats 52 hold seats. The bill did not get enough votes to override a veto on its passage, with 21 senators having voted yes and 52 assembly members approving it.
That won’t stop Lesniak from trying.
“We’re going to give it a shot and a good one,” he said. “I have more than 10,000 names and email addresses on a petition supporting this and I plan to ask every one of them to contact their legislators and urge them to override the veto.”