Governor loses bid to reform pet facility inspections

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Gov. Laura Kelly’s effort to reform the state’s program for inspecting animal shelters, boarding kennels and pounds was rejected by legislative committees Tuesday.

The House and Senate budget-writing committees set aside the governor’s request for $500,000 to move the Animal Facilities Inspection Program for pets out of the Division of Animal Health in the state Agriculture Department.

The reorganization would have separated the program for inspecting facilities housing pets from the Agriculture Department’s Animal Health Division, which ensures the health and welfare of Kansas livestock.

Kelly had pushed for the change after a 2018 legislative audit revealed deficiencies in the program.

But the governor’s proposal ran into opposition among lawmakers upset that she would introduce a proposal that had not been vetted just a day after she vetoed parts of the budget that she said had not been thoroughly examined.

They said reorganization of a state agency shouldn’t be decided in an amendment to the budget. They said the proposal needs more hearings and deliberations.

Ken Rahjes

“I got a real problem with this,” said Republican state Rep. Ken Rahjes, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

“You’re coming in at this late hour,” Rahjes said. “I’m a little concerned about why now.

“I think this should be vetted a whole lot more…than to come in at this late hour and do this,” Rajhes said.

“I am a little leery of going along with a half-million dollars on something I think needs to be vetted more.”

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kelsey Olson said the governor’s office expressed an interest in bolstering the program in March after an audit revealed it had been struggling in recent years.

Budget Director Adam Proffitt said the goal of segregating pets from livestock regulation was to allow experts to concentrate on the areas where they are most knowledgeable and ensure the program is run properly.

Proffitt said there was no intent to sneak something past the Legislature by seeking money for the reorganization this late in the session.

“It’s just a matter of unfortunate timing, you might call it, that all the information started coming together throughout the session” he said.

“It came together now. We feel like it’s at a good spot, that we have all the details that we can present.”

Animal facility inspections for pets have been a part of the state’s Animal Health Division regulating livestock since 2011, after Sam Brownback became governor.

Over the years, the program had seen a decline in staff, falling from nine in 2011 to five in 2021. There were six inspectors in 2011. There are now three.

The Animal Facilities Inspection Program has been in distress in recent years, since before Kelly was elected governor.

A 2018 audit found that state regulators were not consistently pursuing penalties for substandard animal shelters, kennels and breeding facilities.

State auditors found that the state’s Animal Facilities Inspection Program lacked policies to ensure that penalties were “consistent, appropriate or progressively severe” across facilities.

Auditors examined 33 cases where a facility failed at least three consecutive inspections from 2013 to 2017. In about two-thirds of those cases, they found that regulators did not consistently levy a penalty.

The state’s animal inspection program — as of 2019 — oversaw 940 animal facilities across Kansas with a budget of about $425,000 and three full-time inspectors. About 450 of the inspected facilities included pounds, shelters and boarding kennels.

Auditors warned that state inspectors “lacked well-defined guidelines to determine when it is appropriate to penalize facilities.”

While there is a general practice of fining a facility after its third failed inspection, the state in some instances gives a facility latitude to come into compliance before a fine is assessed.

But auditors said the lack of a policy for levying fines raises concerns that an animal shelter might operate much longer than it otherwise should.

Sydney Carlin

Democratic state Rep. Sydney Carlin of Manhattan advocated for a standalone agency that would be dedicated to the inspection of facilities that house pets.

“It needs more emphasis to get the job done,” Carlin said. “Apparently by putting it in with the swine and the cattle, it had just gotten lost.”

Carlin suggested that the Brownback administration should shoulder some of the blame for the problems with the current setup.

“We had a governor who cut a lot of programs and sold a lot of things,” she said.

But the proposal ran into stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers who questioned why the governor would bring them a proposal that had not been vetted after she criticized them in her veto message on Monday for doing the same thing.

“We heard yesterday that the governor is not really excited about items that have not been fully vetted and gone through the process,” said Republican state Sen. J.R. Claeys of Salina.

“She made the argument in her line-item vetoes, and I would hate to disappoint her by having an item in here that had not been fully vetted,” Claeys said.

Democratic state Sen. Tom Burroughs of Kansas City asked the House Appropriations Committee to seek interim hearings on the issue of animal inspections.

“There’s been much discussion of this issue over the years, and it’s been around quite a while,” Burroughs said. “It’s taken up a tremendous amount of time and energy.

“I would just like to send a strong message from the committee that it’s time to move this issue on,” Burroughs said.