COVINGTON -- Pending legislation that proposes to add a tax to medical care for pets and other animals has many veterinarians howling.
House Bills 385, 386, 387 and 388 seek to overhaul the state's tax system by reducing income tax rates for individuals and businesses and increase sales taxes on certain services.
Among those services that would be subject to the state's 4 percent sales tax are pet services, such as boarding, training and grooming, and veterinarian expenses for pets.
Lobbying efforts opposing this provision are now under way by veterinarian groups across the state.
The Georgia Veterinary Medical Association has issued a "Call to Action," urging veterinarians and pet owners to contact their legislators and asking them to oppose this provision.
"Currently, veterinary services are not taxed; medications and supplies are taxed," a press release from the GVMA states. "Should the proposed pet tax become written into law, pet owners could see veterinary bills increase by an overall 7 percent to 8 percent due to taxation, per standard protocol for counties to add county tax to the proposed 4 percent state tax."
Rockdale and Newton counties impose 7 percent sales tax. In Newton County, this rate is a result of school and county special purpose local options sales taxes and a local option sales tax. Rockdale County likewise has SPLOSTs for the county and the school system, as well as a homestead option sales tax.
Veterinarians raise objections on several fronts to the proposed tax on veterinarian services. Primarily, they fear too many cash-strapped pet owners will not be able to afford health care for their animals if the bill climbs too high due to taxes.
"Our business is already crippled by the economy because so many cannot afford health care for their pets, and to add a tax to it, we fear, will put most of us out of business," said Dr. Shannon Miller, a veterinarian at Animal Medical of Covington and clinic director of East Metro Animal Emergency Clinic. "People are already struggling to pay for the needs of their pets. We fear animals are going to be neglected."
"Economic euthanasia" is what the GVMA foresees as a natural consequence of a burdensome tax.
"In the current economy, animal owners must make difficult decisions regarding the welfare of their pets and/or horses," the group's legislative alert states. "Adding sales tax to veterinary services may force owners to forego life-saving procedures and opt for economic euthanasia."
For Miller, the idea that veterinary services are included in the list of industries to be taxed adds insult to injury, and risks diminishing the perception of the importance of veterinary care.
"If you look at (House Bill 385), it mainly covers manual labors, manicurists, tire replacement, but at the bottom of this list is veterinary services," Miller said. "That includes equine, large animals, and of course, small animals. No other branch of health care is taxed like you're going to buy a pair of shoes. Dentists, acupuncturists, chiropractors are all exempt."
She said that veterinarians attend eight years of school and receive specialized medical training. She pointed out that panels convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to discuss ways to prepare for and prevent contagious diseases between animals and humans are manned by veterinarians.
"We are worried about what we view as a major attack on our profession and what should be considered medicine, and we're concerned the state doesn't view veterinary medicine as health care," Miller said.
She said local veterinary clinics have seen a drop in recent years in patient care due to the economy.
"People are already struggling to get their annual exams, rabies shots, microchipping, and if you add a 7 or 8 percent fee on every service, or God forbid, emergency surgery that can be $800 to $1,000, it can be too much," Miller added.
Local animal shelters are also keeping their eye on the bill, which could add to their costs as well.
Teri Key-Hooson, director of Newton County Animal Control, said her department budgets $3,500 a year for medical services out of an annual budget of approximately $450,000. Rockdale County budgets $2,800 out of Animal Control's $362,449 budget for medical expenses, according to Animal Control Director Ciji Baker. A potential 7 percent in sales tax for each veterinary service is just one more expense to account for in already tight budgets.
The House bills in question, which were sponsored by Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro), Larry O'Neal (R-Bonaire), Jan Jones (R-Milton) and Allen Peake (R-Macon), have been assigned to the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure, according to the Georgia General Assembly Web site.
Channell, who serves as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he was part of a task force that was formed last year to look at the state's current tax system and make recommendations for changes that were appropriate and come up with recommendations how to do that.
"The bottom line is, we have a somewhat antiquated tax system, with the effect being we are not encouraging revenue growth," he said earlier this week.
Local legislators have said they have not had a chance to study the bills closely enough to form opinions. State Rep. Pam Dickerson, a Democrat from Conyers whose district includes portions of Rockdale and Newton counties, said she was familiar with the bills in the broader context, but was not familiar enough to form an opinion at this point.
State Rep. Doug Holt (R-Social Circle) said he has heard from a handful of people from various industries who have raised concerns that their particular areas of services are being targeted.
"I have not looked at it really in depth because it is still in committee, so I'm not prepared to make statements regarding the bill," he said.
March 16 is estimated to be Crossover Day in the General Assembly. Crossover Day is the 30th day of the 40-day legislative session and is the deadline for legislation to have passed at least one chamber or it officially dies.