AVMA sets priorities for 108th Congress

Endorsements for pro-small-business bills, federal funding for chronic wasting disease research
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Among the legislation identified by the AVMA as important to veterinary medicine are a number of bills dealing with helping small businesses, protecting animals from engine coolant and antifreeze, and providing federal funding for chronic wasting disease research.

On the recommendations of the AVMA Legislative Advisory Committee, the Executive Board has designated four bills as warranting "active pursuit of passage." This means they are a high priority for the AVMA, which will expend time and energy to see that they become law.

The bills are the Self-Employed Health Care Affordability Act, Small Business Liability Reform Act, legislation that requires engine coolant and antifreeze to contain a bittering agent, and several pieces of legislation dealing with CWD, a transmissible neurologic disease found in deer and elk.

Three bills received the "support" designation, meaning that, although the AVMA supports their passage, they are not a high priority. The bills are the Family Time Flexibility Act, Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act, and Business Checking Freedom Act.

In addition, the board designated three bills for "nonsupport." They are the Downed Animal Protection Act, Concentrated Livestock Existing Alongside Nature Act, and Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. "Nonsupport" means the AVMA doesn't support the bill, but defeating it isn't a high priority. The AVMA might identify areas of the bill that would need to be changed for support to be considered if appropriate, however.

Self-Employed Health Care Affordability Act
An inequity in the tax code penalizes the 16 million self-employed individuals in the United States. The tax code technicality requires the self-employed to pay for their premiums with funds subjected to the 15.3 percent FICA (Social Security and Medicare) tax. Employers are required to pay 7.65 percent of an employee's 15.3 percent FICA tax, but corporations are able to deduct health insurance premiums as a business expense and forgo FICA taxes on these expenses.

A self-employed individual must pay both sides of the tax, resulting in the 15.3 percent tax on income, commonly referred to as the self-employment tax. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the average cost of health insurance premiums for family coverage is $7,954 per year. A self-employed individual is required to add an additional $1,217.

Illinois Rep. Donald Manzullo has introduced H.R. 1873, which provides the small-business owner with the same tax treatment as big business. This legislation is supported by an array of associations ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Small Business Liability Reform Act
This legislation affords increased protection against liability claims brought against small businesses. It would allow punitive damages against a small business only if the claimant establishes that conscious and flagrantly indifferent conduct carried out by the defendant was the proximate cause of harm.

Introduced by Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot in the House and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Senate, H.R. 2813/ S. 1546 limits punitive damages to the lesser of three times the amount awarded for economic and noneconomic losses, or $250,000. Exceptions are provided in which the defendant is liable only for noneconomic loss in proportion to the defendant's responsibility.

Courts are directed by this legislation to render separate judgments against each defendant, describing percentages of responsibility. The legislation also protects small business against product liability. Liability will lie with the manufacturer of the product—unless the seller did not exercise reasonable care with respect to the product causing harm, made a warranty, or engaged in intentional wrongdoing.

The AVMA is currently seeking to amend the bill's language so as to expand the definition of small business beyond 25 employees.

To require engine coolant and antifreeze to contain a bittering agent
This legislation requires engine coolant or antifreeze sold containing more than 10 percent ethylene glycol to include denatonium benzoate (or other equally effective, aversive agent) at a minimum of 30 ppm as a bittering agent so as to render it unpalatable.

New York Rep. Gary Ackerman introduced H.R. 1563. This act is inapplicable to the sale of a motor vehicle that contains engine coolant or antifreeze, or wholesale containers of engine coolant or antifreeze containing 55 gallons or more of engine coolant or antifreeze.

The AVMA is seeking amendments to eliminate the exemptions listed above, and to broaden the definition of a motor vehicle to include any vehicle that requires engine coolant or antifreeze.

Chronic wasting disease legislation
This legislation provides federal coordination and financial support to states and tribal agencies in areas affected by CWD in wild and captive deer and elk herds. The legislation (S. 1036, 1366/H.R. 2057, 2430, 2431, 2636) supports scientific research, surveillance and monitoring programs, disease management strategies, public outreach, education and awareness campaigns, and other support, as needed.

Family Time Flexibility Act and Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits private-sector employees from offering their employees the choice of opting for compensatory paid time off in lieu of overtime cash wages. That option has long been available in the public work sector.

Illinois Rep. Judy Biggert introduced the Family Time Flexibility Act (H.R. 1119), whereas New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg introduced the Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act (S. 317).

The net effect of these two bills is to allow employers to extend the options of flexibility in scheduling work times for staff. The goal is to give workers more choices, thereby improving relations between employer and employees.

These bills give employers the option of offering employees the choice of paid compensatory time off instead of overtime pay. The employee could choose between overtime pay or compensatory time off, paid at the normal wage, but calculated at the rate of 1.5 hours compensatory time for each hour of overtime worked.

Business Checking Freedom Act
This bill amends a 1933 law that forbids the paying of interest by banks on checking accounts held by businesses.

If passed, this bill would allow businesses to make up to 24 transfers each month from interest-bearing transaction accounts to other transaction accounts. Small businesses would benefit because they and small banks typically do not generate enough cash to circumvent the federal ban on interest payments, as do larger businesses and banks.

The House passed H.R. 758 in April 2003; New York Sen. Charles Schumer introduced companion legislation, S. 553, which was referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

Downed Animal Protection Act
Current versions of this bill—H.R. 2519 and S. 1298—provide that stockyards, market agencies, dealers, and other establishments covered by the Federal Meat Inspection Act must not move nonambulatory livestock while such livestock are conscious, immediately humanely euthanatize such livestock, and must not pass nonambulatory livestock through inspection.

One of the AVMA's criticisms of the bill is it does not appropriately address swine that may become temporarily nonambulatory as a result of their heavy muscularity. Although the welfare of the covered animals is of concern, this concern is ameliorated by the presence of federal veterinarians and inspectors or equivalent personnel at terminal markets and slaughter plants to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act.

Allowing time for nonambulatory swine to recover so they can be humanely slaughtered may be more humane than requiring them to be euthanatized by a potentially inexperienced yardworker.

Concentrated Livestock Existing Alongside Nature Act
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has introduced S. 1407, which calls for extensive regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations.

The Legislative Advisory Committee believes the bill does not fit with the current AVMA policy regarding agricultural waste management, which supports voluntary incentives for best waste management practices.

Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act
This legislation would purportedly preserve the effectiveness of medically important antimicrobials used in treatment of human and animal disease by banning the use of antimicrobials in animals for growth promotion, routine disease prevention, and other routine uses.

The proposed prohibition exceeds the ban instituted by the European Union, which has banned or will ban uses for growth promotion, but not to prevent disease.

The bills are similar but not identical. A major difference is S. 1460 includes provisions for research, education, and financial support for family farms and small farms, whereas H.R. 2932 does not.