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Bill seeks vote to soften cockfight penalties

By John Greiner
The Oklahoman

Senators will decide this week whether to ask Oklahoma voters if they meant it in November when they approved tough penalties for cockfighting.

Sen. Frank Shurden's bill for a statewide election on reducing the penalties for cockfighting from felonies to misdemeanors will be considered probably Tuesday, Shurden said.

"For them not to back up the vote of the people is cowardly," Janet Halliburton, leader of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting, said of the Legislature.

On Nov. 5, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 687 to ban cockfighting in Oklahoma and make violations felonies. The proposal got 56 percent of the vote.

The next day Shurden, a Democrat from Henryetta who said he's never been to a cockfight, said the penalties for cockfighting are too severe and he would propose legislation to reduce them to misdemeanors.

He's now changed his legislation, Senate Bill 835, to call for a statewide election on changing the penalties rather than having the Legislature do it.

He's also going to include language in the bill that states the Legislature's intent is that no one is prosecuted for violations until the people vote on the penalties again, he said.

The intent language doesn't bind prosecutors but only shows the intent of the Legislature, Shurden said.

"The only reason Senator Shurden is interested in decreasing the penalty is so cockfighters can continue cockfighting in Oklahoma," Halliburton said. "They will always do this if it is a misdemeanor because it is an underground, secretive society."

SQ 687 now is law but is tied up in legal challenges before the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

The law states it would be a felony to instigate or encourage cockfighting; keep places, equipment or facilities for cockfighting; aid or assist in cockfighting; or own, possess, keep or train birds for cockfighting.

Conviction would carry a penalty of one to 10 years in prison and a fine of not less than $2,000 or more than $25,000.

Cynthia Armstrong, campaign manager for the coalition that circulated the anticockfighting initiative petition that was approved in November, said misdemeanor penalties would be no penalty at all.

"They would render the cockfighting ban hollow, ineffective and unenforceable," she said.

Halliburton and Armstrong said the anticockfighting law, including the penalties, was patterned after the law against dog fighting.

If the Legislature approves Shurden's legislation, a vote would be held in the 2004 general election, Shurden said.

The House passed a similar measure earlier in the session, causing him to believe the House would pass his proposal if it clears the Senate this week.

Shurden said he could have gotten the original version of his bill passed in the Senate, but there was no guarantee the governor would sign it if it cleared the Senate and House.

"It's a compromise. It puts it back in the hands of the people," Shurden said of SB 835.

A governor cannot veto a proposal submitted to a vote of the people.

Shurden said he's been accused of trying to thwart the will of the people by trying to change the penalties on cockfighting.

He defended his legislation, saying SQ 687 created a statute banning cockfighting and is subject to amendment by the Legislature just as any other statutory provision can be amended.

"We've got every right to re-address any statutory law," he said.

Although the anticockfighting proposal passed in November, an overwhelming majority of counties voted against it, Shurden said.

The proposal got big margins in some of the more populous counties, including Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.

Armstrong said she analyzed the vote based on legislative districts and found that 68 percent of the 48 state Senate districts and 63 percent of the state House's 101 districts voted for the statewide ban.

After November's election, lawsuits were filed in 27 counties, seeking to block the cockfighting ban from going into effect.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson later asked the state Supreme Court to declare the anticockfighting law constitutional.

When Edmondson asked that the cases be consolidated last January, he said:

"In my opinion, an even bigger issue than cockfighting is the constitutional right of the people to engage in the initiative process. It is the power of the people that is being frustrated by these individual court proceedings."

Armstrong said cockfighting won't end without strong penalties.

Oklahoma was one of only three states permitting cockfighting.

The others are Louisiana and New Mexico.