By Sen. Roy Dyson

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This appears to be the year of the license plate in the Maryland General Assembly. Several legislators, including myself, have introduced bills creating new motor vehicle license plates in the state. Mine, Senate Bill (SB) 488, establishes a special license plate for supporters of dog and cat sterilization programs. This is a serious bill which I feel has a very good chance of passage. Let me explain the impetus for it and what it hopes to accomplish.

Although SB 488 is a state-wide bill, the request to have it introduced came from my district. Rosalind Tyler, president of the St. Mary's Animal Welfare League, provided my office with information on what other states had done with similar license plates and requested that we investigate it and possibly do the same thing in Maryland.

Animal overpopulation is an increasing problem which manifests itself in large numbers of stray dogs and cats. Unwanted domestic animals are dumped along the side of the road. Or, when they wander away from home their owners make no attempt to find them.

Dogs and cats, once they are left in the wild, must fend for themselves. More often than not they are hit by cars. Others are trapped by animal control agencies and end up at animal shelters. In Southern Maryland 80 percent of the 10,000 dogs and cats which arrive at the Tri-County Animal Shelter don't get adopted or reclaimed. That's 8,000 potentially good pets which are killed every year in just the three Southern Maryland counties.

The animals which survive in the wild breed and their offspring are wild and dangerous to the general population. They can transmit rabies and bite children. If they make it they become a financial burden on government to pick them up and shelter them.

Even though animal control is usually a government responsibility in the state's counties, there is no real unified government approach to reducing the stray animal population. The ultimate solution is to cut down on the number of unwanted animals by cutting down on indiscriminate breeding. This is accomplished by increasing the number of domestic animals which are spayed or neutered. Unfortunately many people are unable or unwilling to pay for these simple and safe procedures. That's where low-cost or no-cost

Even though animal control is usually a government function, many animal shelters are run by volunteer groups with precious few resources. Their spay/neuter effort is uneven, with success depending on a county's financial ability and their fundraising success. This bill will give a booster shot of money to those programs.

The bill creates a special license plate similar to the Chesapeake Bay one. A extra fee, over and above the regular fee plus the cost of administering, would be charged, just like the Bay plates. The proceeds would be returned to the counties and Baltimore City in proportion to the number of plates sold in each jurisdiction. They would in turn issue grants for spay/neuter programs. This bill costs the state nothing and provides needed funding.

Maryland had three types of license plates: the basic one that most people have; the special commemorative plate for the Bay; and organizations plates, such as those for VFW posts and fire departments. The animal friendly license plate would add a second plate to the commemorative category.

There are several other bills here this year which would add other plates for other issues. I think these are win/win situations. I don't believe they will take away from the Bay plates, which have their own constituencies. Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Virginia have animal friendly license plates. The New Jersey program has raised more than a million dollars in several years.

I also might add that there was a bill filed which has been withdrawn, which would have eliminated the organizational plates. No doubt the sponsor was inundated with opposition. I support those plates and hope the effort to eliminate them will not resurface. I know many organizations take pride in these plates and they should be allowed to continue.

The hearing on SB 488 is scheduled for Wednesday, February 19 at 1 p.m. in the Senate Judiciary Committee. I hope a lot of you can come up and testify. Hopefully in the future we can drive down the road and see a license plate with a picture of a dog and a cat and say, what a great idea. And just think, the idea originated in Southern Maryland.

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