Legislature poised to pass enhanced penalties for cockfighting

After decades of repeated rejection, legislation that would increase penalties for cockfighting in Tennessee seems poised for passage in the Tennessee General Assembly.

But some advocates for animal protection have again lost an attempt to reinstate state regulation of what they call “puppy mills,” large-scale operations for breeding dogs.

The bill to enhance penalties for animal fighting (SB1024) has already passed the Senate, as has similar legislation in the past. But this year the companion House bill has also cleared the House Agriculture Committee, which has historically been the roadblock to enactment despite the repeated efforts of sponsor Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, in recent years.

Counting that key committee, the measure now has been blessed by five House committees and subcommittees and is on the Finance Committee agenda Tuesday. Approval there would set the stage for a final vote later this week or early next week as the General Assembly moves toward adjournment of the 2015 session.

In pushing passage this year, Lundberg focused in his presentations to committees on a provision that was not part of prior efforts — one declaring that those bringing a child under age 18 to an animal fight will be subject to a minimum penalty of $1,000.

As Tennessee law stands now, a spectator at a cockfight only can be convicted of a Class C misdemeanor, which has a minimum fine of $50. Other provisions of this year’s bill would increase the penalty for general spectators at an animal fight to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 — though no minimum is set unless a child is involved.

Lundberg and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, have joined other advocates of increased penalties — including law enforcement officers — in contending the mild penalty has made Tennessee the preferred location for organized crime centered around animal fighting. Dog fights and cockfighting, they say, typically includes illegal gambling and illegal drug trafficking.

Ketron cited an April 2014 raid on a Nashville dog fighting operation in which U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers seized large amounts of cocaine, heroin and cash along with 38 dogs. He said there also have been recent seizures of dogs used for fights in Sevier County and fighting roosters in Sullivan County.

The bill passed the Senate 24-1. The sole no vote was cast by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, who said “judges aren’t fining anyone now at a Class C misdemeanor” and are even less likely to impose penalties with higher fines.

“The federal government spent a million and a half dollars in Cocke County, with black helicopters and automatic weapons” in a 2007 raid that ultimately led to just one conviction of “a guy who wouldn’t quit running his mouth,” Niceley said.

The senator also denounced the Humane Society of the United States, which supports the bill and which used direct mail advertising to attack Niceley in his 2012 election campaign. In the House, HSUS was also roundly denounced by Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, both in the House Agriculture Committee and in an interview.

But Holt, who opposed similar legislation in the past, wound up voting for it this year.

“Good legislation should survive bad lobbyists,” he said, citing the provision creating a minimum $1,000 penalty for taking a minor to an animal fight.

The Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, which had indicated misgivings about the legislation in the past, was more supportive this year, Lundberg said. The measure was also endorsed last month by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The incestuous relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow” with each year the Legislature does not increase the penalties, said Russell Moore, president of the commission in a letter to House Speaker Beth Harwell and other legislators.

“Unfortunately, Tennessee plays host to these conferences of nefarious activities because the punishment for dogfighting and cockfighting is a slap on the wrist in comparison to the payouts,” he wrote.

Leighann Lassiter, state leader of HSUS, also had new help in lobbying the bill this year. Former Republican state Reps. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville and Eric Watson of Cleveland, who is now Bradley County sheriff, both registered as HSUS lobbyists.

Lassiter said the bill represents a “big, big jump forward” in a state that now has the lowest penalties in the nation for cockfighting spectators and that the mandatory minimum penalty for involving juveniles is a key component.

“People taking children to an animal fight are, No. 1, teaching them to thumb their nose at the law,” she said. “And they’re teaching them that violence toward animals is fun and entertainment.”

In her lobbying efforts, Lassiter carried copies of a GameFowl Journal magazine cover showing a youngster posing with a fighting rooster as exemplifying “the next generation of game fowl breeders.”

Puppy protection

While the animal fighting bill has advanced, a proposed “Safe Dog Purchasing Consumer Protection Act” (SB1020, as amended) has failed amid staunch opposition from some organizations, including the American Kennel Club and the affiliated Tennessee Federation of Dog Clubs, representing more than 100 clubs across the state.

The Legislature enacted a law requiring registration, licensing and oversight of commercial dog breeders in 2009, but the law included a “sunset” provision and became automatically invalid last year. Legislators refused to renew the law then. This year’s bill was, in effect, to put the law back in place, adding some new provisions.

Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, argued before the House Business and Utilities Committee that Tennessee had become “notorious” for unregulated puppy mills that are inhumane to dogs and deceptive for consumers.

The bill would apply to those with 10 or more female dogs, kept for the primary purpose of breeding, and set up a licensing and inspection program involving the state Department of Commerce as well as local governments.

In subcommittee debate, critics included Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge. Marsh said the bill would impose “way too much regulation on small businesses” and is unnecessary, while Gravitt said it amounts to an “unfunded mandate” on local governments that would have an inspection role.

A spokesman for the dog clubs group told the legislators: “This bill hurts the wrong people. It’s a nightmare for law enforcement and hurts the responsible breeders.”

The subcommittee tied 4-4 on a vote to adopt the amendment rewriting the bill pushed by Lynn, who then asked that further consideration be postponed until January 2016. Subsequently, she withdrew the entire bill, effectively killing it.