RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
California continues to wrestle with a multibillion dollar budget gap. To help close it, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to raise taxes on a number of services, among them veterinary care. Gloria Hillard reports that the proposed tax is not going down well with pet owners.
(Soundbite of dog barking)
GLORIA HILLARD: At the Holiday Humane Veterinary Clinic in Los Angeles, it's standing room only — every seat is full. Most are holding small dogs and cats in their arms, others with cardboard boxes between their feet. A few larger dogs are hunkered down on the linoleum floor.
Ms. CHRISTINA PARIS (Receptionist): Our average wait went from a half hour to two hours.
HILLARD: Christina Paris works the front desk of this low-cost nonprofit clinic. She says in the last few months people have been bringing in their pets from as far as two hours away.
Ms. PARIS: There's not a day that goes by that I don't have a patient walk up to me and say, I lost my job today. If they were to have to take them to another place, they would just put them down.
Dr. WILLIAM GRANT II (Veterinarian): Nice dog. Yes, it's ok. It's all right. Yup.
HILLARD: An hour south of here, in Orange County at the Community Veterinary Hospital, Dr. William Grant II is hearing some of the same stories.
Dr. GRANT: We have people already with the economy that are having difficultly making decisions for their pets - treatment protocols, different things that they need to do - and now we're going to increase that burden.
HILLARD: Grant, who is also president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, says the levying of a 9 percent tax on veterinary services could result in more animals being abandoned or relinquished to already overcrowded animal shelters.
Dr. GRANT: I think we're already seeing more euthanasias. We've already dealt with in the last two weeks, we had three or four owner returns. People say, you know, can you fix it and find a home for it? And it is a very difficult thing for people to deal with.
HILLARD: The California Department of Finance is not attempting to single out any one service, according to spokesman H.D. Palmer. He points out that the tax would also extend to auto and appliance repair, golf fees, sporting events, and amusement parks like Disneyland and Knots Berry Farm.
Mr. H.D. PALMER (California Department of Finance): We have to close a $41 billion budget gap, and that by definition is going to mean very difficult decisions, whether it's, you know, taking days off of the school year, whether it's not giving a cost-of-living increase to those who are aged, blind and disabled, or whether it's increasing sales tax on services such as veterinarian services or auto repair.
HILLARD: But according to Suzanne Lindley, medical care for her pet is not a discretionary spending decision. Her dog Ginger sits at her feet. The white lab with the perpetually wagging tail has cancer.
Ms. SUZANNE LINDLEY (Pet Owner): Obviously golf and amusement parks — that's a form of entertainment. But as far as your pets, they're a member of your family. If they're sick, you want to have them treated. So it's not really an expense that's a choice.
HILLARD: Spokesman Palmer says he recognizes this is an emotional issue for animal owners.
Mr. PALMER: We don't put these proposals forward lightly. In a perfect world we would not have to put these proposals on the table.
HILLARD: Because of the high number of calls on the issue, the governor's office designated a special hotline to register comments from constituents.
For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.