The 2013 version of legislation to increase penalties for cockfighting in Tennessee on Wednesday cleared a House subcommittee where it has died in previous years – though not without opposition.
Under the bill by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, cockfighting would remain a misdemeanor on first offense, but the minimum fine would increase from $50 to $500. On second offense, cockfighting would be a felony punishable by one to six years in prison.
Last year’s version called for a felony classification on first offense and set the minimum fine at $2,500. The measure cleared a Senate committee, but died in the House Agriculture Subcommittee.
The House Agriculture Subcommittee, with a somewhat changed makeup from the previous legislative session, approved the bill on voice vote Wednesday. Two members, Republican Reps. Andy Holt of Dresden and Judd Matheny of Tullahoma, had themselves recorded as voting no. (Note/Update: Also, Rep. Billy Spivey, R-Lewisburg, voted no — though he had not been listed as doing so when the roll call was initially checked.)
Matheny said “a lot of people in my area – I don’t know that they’re cockfighting – raise roosters” and that he generally believes the Legislature “has better things to worry about than what to do with the lowly chicken.”
Holt said the Humane Society of the United States – “an arch rival of animal agriculture” – pushes the legislation and he sees it as a “first step” toward making some practices involved in raising and handling livestock a crime.
Holt also said he disagrees with the whole premise of the bill.
“Should second offense speeding be a felony?” he said. “For somebody who fights a chicken or attends a chicken fight to potentially have more time than someone committing domestic violence or abusing children is ridiculous,” Holt said.
Lundberg said the bill is not a step toward any other law, but merely fixes a problem.
“This just closes a loophole in our current law,” he said. “It’s already a felony for any other kind of animal fighting.”
“Cockfighting is not a sport. It is an industry that involves organized crime, gambling and drinking,” Lundberg.
Lundberg said he expects a representative of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to testify at a hearing next week before the full House Agriculture Committee on the cockfighting industry. Officials have said in the past that the present low penalty – most other states already make cockfighting a felony – has caused Tennessee to become a favored location for cockfighting.
The Legislature’s staff estimates an average of 38 convictions per year for cockfighting with four being second offenses. Housing the felons felons in state custody would cost taxpayers about $85,000 per year, the staff estimates.