California spay-neuter license plate backers near goal

State veterinary board to establish fund-distribution rules

July 27, 2012 (published)
By Edie Lau

Image courtesy of the California Spay Neuter License Plate Fund, Inc.
This sample of a proposed specialty license plate in California to fund pet spay and neuter programs features art by the actor Pierce Brosnan, a project supporter.
A specialty license plate to raise money in California for pet spay and neuter programs isn’t a done deal, but proponents are so confident of success that the state Veterinary Medical Board is scheduled in October to consider how to distribute the hoped-for funds.

State law requires 7,500 pre-orders on new specialty plates before beginning production. Supporters had collected 5,523 pre-orders as of July 13, according to their website.

“We know we’re going to get to our goal by our deadline. We’re on the downhill stretch now,” said Judie Mancuso, president of the non-profit California Spay and Neuter License Plate Fund, Inc., and a member of the state Veterinary Medical Board, which is sponsoring the effort.

The plate initiative almost failed but the Legislature this spring granted the campaign an extra year to reach the required number of pre-orders. The new deadline is June 30, 2013.

Backers began in 2010 to try to establish a “pet lover’s plate,” as they call it, to support public programs to spay and neuter cats and dogs. Supporters see sterilization as an important means of countering pet overpopulation, which they say drives the need to euthanize a half-million dogs and cats in California shelters each year.

The state currently offers a dozen special-interest plates supporting a diversity of causes, including child health and safety, veterans, firefighters, Lake Tahoe, the arts, the environment and — the newest — agriculture.

Mancuso said rules on establishing specialty license plates were more relaxed in the past. As plate proposals proliferated, the state stiffened the criteria, including by requiring 5,000 pre-orders, a threshold later raised to 7,500.

Proponents have one year to secure the required pre-orders, and may apply to the state for an extra year if needed. Spay-neuter license plate advocates were granted the extra year. As they neared the end of two years, they still were short. They appealed to lawmakers to intervene.

Mancuso said the campaign at that point had 5,000 pre-orders, which would have met the old criteria, so proponents attempted at first to persuade the Legislature to return to the old threshold. That didn’t fly, but lawmakers did agree to extend the deadline for the spay-neuter plate only.

Vehicle owners wishing to pre-order are required to pay up front. The cost is $50 for a regular plate and $98 for a personalized plate. The prolonged lag time between order-taking and production, and perhaps the uncertainty about whether the plates will be made, has caused some pre-orders to be cancelled, Mancuso acknowledged, “but not many,” she said.

The initiative enjoys prominent allies. One is California Gov. Jerry Brown, who, after signing the deadline-extending legislation, appeared at a news conference on May 2 at a Petco store in Los Angeles to promote the plate. With him was his Welsh corgi, Sutter; Cesar Milan, known as the “Dog Whisperer”; and actor Pierce Brosnan, whose best-known movie role is James Bond.

Brosnan created and donated the art that distinguishes the proposed plates. The painting depicts a purple dog and a golden tabby cat sporting sunglasses, which Brosnan said are his pets, Shilo — a pound dog — and Angel Baby.

The idea of raising funds for spay-neuter programs isn’t necessarily popular among all pet lovers. The VIN News Service reported in September 2010 that some veterinarians are skeptical about supporting subsidized or free spaying and neutering of animals that belong to owners who have the means to pay in full for the procedures.

The issue touches a nerve for many private practitioners, who perceive increased competition from low-cost spay-neuter clinics and other organizations offering discounted veterinary services.

However, Dr. Allan Drusys, chief veterinarian for Riverside County and a member of the California Veterinary Medical Association Board of Governors, as well as the board of the California Spay and Neuter License Plate Fund, Inc., said he has “not heard a word” of opposition from veterinarians.

Drusys noted that 100 percent of funds raised by the plate would go to the cause. He said the money would not go to “mom and pop non-profit animal rescue groups,” but rather, local governments and/or non-profit organizations such as humane societies that have contracts with local governments for animal-control services.

As to how jurisdictions apply for funding, such details are still to be worked out. “Obviously, there won’t be enough for everybody,” Drusys said. “If there is an animal-control jurisdiction that doesn’t have a spay-neuter program and doesn’t have a veterinarian on staff, they may not qualify.”

Mancuso noted that establishing state regulations is a lengthy process, which is why the Veterinary Medical Board is beginning the process even before the plates are a go. At a meeting Oct. 17-18 in San Diego, the board is scheduled to hold a public hearing to hear ideas for rules governing fund distribution and auditing, she said.

Auditing and transparency are essential pieces, Mancuso said, especially in light of a recent report by the Associated Press about a lack of state oversight of existing special-interest license plate funds. Responding to the report, Gov. Brown in late May ordered an audit of the program.

Before the AP report was published, Mancuso said she became aware while researching specialty license plate funding that the groups collecting plate funds did not necessarily report how much money they’d received and how it was spent.

“I wasn’t really surprised (by the news article) and I was glad someone brought it to light but also, then, it caused people to question us,” she said. “I got people emailing me saying, ‘Hey, these plates are scams. What are you going to do with the money?’ ”

Mancuso said the spay-neuter advocacy group intends to share on its website details of how many plates have been sold, how much money has been collected and how the money is spent. “We want people to get excited and want to give money and be able to track where it goes,” she said. “That’s why we’re doing it. We’re doing it to get the money out to the cities and counties with the greatest needs.”

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