A bill to raise penalties for cockfighting in Tennessee fell two votes short of passage in the state Senate Monday night after Sen. Frank Niceley depicted the measure as an attack on farmers raising livestock by animal rights’ activists.
“This bill is not about chickens, not about cockfighting. It’s about killing animal agriculture in America,” said Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains.
He contended that bill “makes it illegal to own a bantam hen” and “as written, it could outlaw hunting hogs with hounds in Tennessee.” He also said the Humane Society of the United States, which supports the bill, spent $50,000 trying to defeat him in his last campaign and “word in the hall is” that the organization is spending $90,000 on lobbying.
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, sponsor of the bill (SB285), said the bill would not make ownership of chickens “of any kind” illegal would merely bring Tennessee in line with 39 other states in penalizing cockfighting.
He also declared that he was not sponsoring the bill for HSUS, but because the mild penalty now was bringing crime associated with cockfighting to Tennessee. In 2008, he said the TBI arrested a group of cockfighters engaged in “multi-ton meth and heroin” shipments, working in conjunction with “Mexican drug dealers.”
The bill sets a minimum fine of $500 for both those who engage in cockfighting and spectators on first offense, though the crime would still be classed as a misdemeanor. The current minimum fine is $50.
Those convicted of a second offense for engaging in cockfighting could be prosecuted on a felony under the bill, subject to a fine of up to $3,000 and six years in jail.
Sens. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, and Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, expressed misgivings about the bill.
Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, repeated a remark he said was initially made by another senator years ago: “A chicken’s got a lot better chance in the ring than he does with Colonel Sanders.”
The final vote was 15-8 with nine senators abstaining or not voting. A bill needs 17 yes votes to pass the Senate.
Tennessee legislators have been fighting over cockfighting for decades and, as with many morality matters in our state and elsewhere, the squawking boils down to whether traditional values or emerging values prevail in the pecking order of our collective consciousness.
That collective consciousness, of course, is reflected in the people we elect as our state representatives and senators, and what they can agree upon without ruffling too many feathers. It does not involve a question of which came first, as with the chicken or the egg.
The traditionalists came first. Andrew Jackson raised fighting roosters. He also had slaves. There’s an obvious and monumental difference, of course: human beings versus animals. The fate of chickens is irrelevant, inconsequential trivia in comparison to slavery.
And remember that Andy Jackson relied upon a well-armed state militia, composed of citizens with a right to bear arms, in defeating the Creek Indians and, later, the British at New Orleans. In that respect, his traditional view prevails somewhat today in our state’s collective consciousness as reflected by our pro-gun Legislature.
But, well, cockfighting is a matter of debate. Maybe as high up there as such major controversies as whether wine can be sold in grocery stores or whether guns can be kept in cars, just to pluck a couple of issues from among many wherein lobbyists are spurred into what passes these days for mortal combat in Legislatorland.
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.”
The House Agriculture Subcommittee has killed legislation that would have raised the fine for cockfighting, now $50 in most cases.
The defeat of HB910 came despite continuing attempts to soften the penalties within the bill. As originally proposed, the measure would have made cockfighting a felony, as it is in most other states.
That was changed to a $2,500 fine with no jail time by amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill unanimously passed a week ago. In the House subcommittee Wednesday, sponsor Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, agreed to reduce the penalty further to $500.
But when Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, made the motion to amend to a $500 fine, the vote was a 3-3 tie, meaning the amendment was rejected.
That left members to vote on the bill with the $2,500 fine in effect. All six members of the committee voted no.
Before the vote, Lundberg said some members – though he declined to name them — had told him privately that they regard cockfighting as a part of Tennessee’s heritage that should not be punished harshly.
“If this is such a great sport and such a great part of the culture, I would challenge them to pick up the microphone and tell us why… to say it publicly as well,” he said.
No member of the panel spoke against the bill.
Members of the panel are They are Ford and fellow Republican Reps. Curtis Halford of Dyer, Steve McDaniels of Parkers Crossroads, Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains along with Democratic Reps. Johnny Shaw of Bolivar and John Mark Windle of Livingston.
Legislation to make cockfighting a felony in Tennessee has been revised to instead declare it a Class A misdemeanor on first offense with a minimum $2,500 fine.
As things stand now, the typical fine for spectators at a cockfight is $50. That provides little deterrent, proponents of the bill say, and in fact makes Tennessee an increasingly popular place to hold events since cockfighting is a felony in most neighboring states.
“It seems to make us a mecca,” said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, sponsor of SB785.
As originally introduced, Ketron’s bill called for making the crime a felony in Tennessee as well. That led to legislative staff estimating that it would cost the state $618,000 per year to lock up those convicted of a felony. An amendment makes those organizing a cockfight, participating in one or simply being spectators all subject to a $2,500 minimum fine — but no jail time. Those convicted of a second offense, however, would be subject to a felony conviction.
The revision lowers the estimated cost to the state to just $55,000 for housing the projected felony convicts, which supporters hope will improve prospects for passage.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee lawmaker who wants to see stiffer penalties for cockfighting said he doesn’t know who would oppose something that is “synonymous with gambling, alcohol and drugs.”
Republican state Rep. Jon Lundburg of Bristol said he plans to sponsor a bill that would remove Tennessee from the lineup of 11 states that punish cockfighting as a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
Lundburg said he intends for the legislation to also increase penalties for cockfight spectators, partly because they frequently bring along children.
“Unfortunately it is one of those family sports where kids are there,” he said.
Lundburg said the bill will likely be introduced in about a week.
Tennessee lawmakers have previously refused to approve similar measures.
Humane Society animal cruelty policy director John Goodwin told the Johnson City Press that cockfighting “is in retreat in states that have imposed tough penalties.”
Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro said he plans to sponsor the measure in the Senate.
Ketron said a sheriff in his district has told him that cockfighting is a problem but enforcing with existing violations carrying a $50 fine “they are right back at it the next day.”
Ketron said legislators get pressure to oppose tougher penalties for cockfighting and increasing financial penalties on anything will be difficult this year. He said some people claim that cockfighting is “biblical, that they ought to be able to fight.”
Ketron also said a major reason to stiffen the penalty is that typically at cockfight children are exposed and in some cases “go around taking up money.”
“There’s a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol and a lot of dirty money and weapons,” he said.
Goodwin said increased penalties in some neighboring states has made Tennessee more attractive for cockfighting. He said a cockfight raided in Polk County in June 2010 involved mostly by out-of-state people.
A crying 10-year-old girl at the Polk County raid said she was there to be with her father, who also was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Investigators seized $20,000 and county investigators, members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol and federal agents handed out more than 100 misdemeanor offense citations. Gaffs used by roosters, scales and other related paraphernalia were also seized.
An e-mail statement from the Humane Society said agents seized about 150 roosters.