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Cockfighting: Panel passes measure on vote

By MARIE PRICE World Capitol Bureau

Tulsa World

The bill would allow voters to decide whether to lower penalties from a felony to a misdemeanor.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A bill that would call for a vote of the people on whether to lower cockfighting penalties from a felony to a misdemeanor passed the House Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday.

Rep. Randall Erwin, D-Nashoba, said Senate Bill 835, which he is sponsoring along with Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, will be the vehicle for a referendum on the issue.

Erwin filed similar House legislation, but the two measures have been merged into the Senate bill.

Oklahoma voters outlawed cockfighting last November.

"A lot of people that voted for State Question 687, while they didn't like chicken fighting, thought the penalties were too tough," Erwin said after the committee meeting.

He said many farmers and ranchers in his southeastern Oklahoma district own gamefowl but do not fight them. The law could be misconstrued and result in their arrest, he said.

"These people aren't criminals, but under State Question 687, we've made them criminals," he said.

The penalties imposed by the cockfighting ban are more severe than for some abuses of humans, Erwin said.

The penalty as outlined in SB 835 would be a fine of not more than $500.

Polls show that most Oklahomans believe that the penalties go too far, he added.

"All we're doing is letting them decide, would they like to reduce the penalty phase," Erwin said, comparing the legislation with recent ballot proposals such as right to work and the pending lottery measure.

Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, cast a solitary "no" against the measure on a voice vote in committee.

Lamons said nearly 70 percent of his constituents voted for the ban.

"What I'm hearing is that this bill is no longer about cockfighting, that it's about going around the will of the people and doing what they darn well want," he said of the bill's proponents.

Lamons said voters had their say last fall and voted for a stronger law.

"That's not what voters, I think, wanted," he said of the move to make violation a misdemeanor.

Also Tuesday, House members passed a bill that would lower the penalty for violating the Animal Facilities Protection Act from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Existing law prohibits damage or destruction of or entry into an animal facility or removal of animals without the owner's permission.

In addition to lowering the penalty, SB 833, by Shurden and Rep. M.C. Leist, D-Morris, also would require full restitution for any property damage, replacement of animals released and out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a result of any violation.

The bill passed 74-26.

The House Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed SB 584, the Oklahoma Farm Animal, Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act, by Sen. Bruce Price, D-Hinton, and Rep. James Covey, D-Custer City.

The measure would cover animals and insects that are used in agriculture, research, testing or education, as well as crops and related fields and facilities.

Offenses involving property, animals or damage exceeding $500 would be a felony; $500 or less, a misdemeanor.

The felony penalty would include a fine of as much as $10,000, imprisonment for as long as three years, or both.