NASHVILLE -- With Tennessee's budget already going to the dogs, state health officials want permission to tack a $1 fee on rabies vaccinations to continue funding investigations into potential cases of the deadly disease.
Veterinarians are barking mad about the plan. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are baring their teeth at each other with a top Democrat accusing some GOP critics of preening like peacocks with their opposition.
Underscoring the tension is a stark fiscal reality: In a three-year period ending July 1, 2011, recession-battered tax revenues will have forced Tennessee to slash general state spending by an estimated $1.5 billion or 21 percent. It also doesn't help that a fight is brewing over the proposed 2010-11 budget.
"I'm just opposed to us adding a tax, a fee in this economic environment and putting the costs of this program on the backs of citizens that are now trying to be law abiding and have their animals vaccinated," said Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, arguing that fewer animals would be vaccinated because of the fee.
Only one in five dogs and cats is vaccinated by their owners, say veterinarians, most of whom oppose the $1 fee.
Rep. Hensley's comments came last week in a House Health and Human Resources Committee.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, however, countered that "we're talking about eliminating services. ... Everybody's talking about 'I'm against something,' but no alternatives have been brought up yet how we're going to do this."
He predicted "this next couple of weeks is going to be real interesting, especially with all these peacocks putting their feathers out and really pontificating."
MAKING THE CASE
The state Health Department wants authority to impose up to a $2 fee on rabies vaccinations to avoid cutting17 to 24 environmentalists whose jobs include inspecting restaurants, hotels and swimming pools and investigating animal bites and possible rabies outbreaks.
Officials maintain the fee would be $1 although they acknowledge it could be raised in future years. The plan would generate about $1 million for the $1.8 million program, now paid for through general fund revenues. The state conducted nearly 2,800 investigations last year. There were 89 cases of rabies, most of them stemming not from pets but wild animals such as bats and raccoons.
There were five cases in which humans were exposed.
"Is it worth $1 million to find five cases of rabies?" asked Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
Replied Cookeville veterinarian Steven Copeland: "It is if you're one of the five cases."
Dr. Copeland, who supported the proposal, said most of his colleagues oppose it.
The committee eventually passed the measure out on a 16-10 vote. All 10 no votes were cast by Republicans. Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, was among the nays. Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, a registered nurse, voted in favor of it.
The bill now goes to the House Budget Subcommittee. It passed the Senate General Welfare Committee earlier in the session on a 6-1 vote. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, was the lone no vote.
While some Republicans are disturbed over the $1 fee to raise $1 million, most have shown little concern about voting for a 3.52 percent fee or assessment on hospitals that would raise $310 million and attract additional federal funding to offset TennCare cuts.
Hospitals have asked for the assessment. But most veterinarians are vehemently opposed to the $1 fee on rabies vaccinations. Dr. Randy Hammon, a Chattanooga veterinarian and past president of the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association, has testified against the fee.
"If we end up having an increased cost in the rabies vaccination, that's going to discourage people from vaccinating their pets," he said last week in an interview.
Dr. Hammon said one of the problems is that local governments already charge pet licensing fees. In Hamilton County, those fees range from $3 to $50 depending on whether a pet has been spayed or neutered.
"What we worry about is the best way not to pay those fees is not to have your pet vaccinated for rabies," Dr. Hammon said.
It also hasn't helped that some revenue-hungry lawmakers wanted to add additional fees to rabies vaccinations to cover pet neutering and even meals-on-wheels programs for the elderly. Both those ideas, however, have been dropped.
As the House debate appeared to be on the verge of spiraling out of control last week, Health Commissioner Susan Cooper dashed back to the Capitol from the airport, where she had been scheduled to fly to Washington for a conference highlighting the state's special work in diabetes, a program that has been reduced to one-year funding.
"We have eliminated programs over the course of the past three years that have served people," she reminded lawmakers. "We have capped programs that are for people that have HIV and AIDS."
The bottom line, she said is, "we have cut to the bone already and what we're trying to do again is to maintain those absolutely necessary programs to protect public health."
If the fees aren't approved, she said, "it is likely this program will diminish in size." She downplayed concerns some pet owners would forego vaccinations if a fee is implemented.
House Bill 3834 is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the House Budget Subcommittee. The Senate version, Senate Bill 3850, is on the Wednesday calendar of the Senate Finance Committee.