Tuesday, February 26, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Cockfighting is a Virginia tradition dating to Colonial times and preserved by gentlemen “cockers” who love their birds, a Senate committee was told yesterday.

The senators didn’t buy it. They overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to exempt members of the Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association from legislation making cockfighting a felony, then sent the measure to the Senate floor on a unanimous vote.

The Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee hearing marked the first public appearance in this legislative session by anyone representing the usually shadowy cockfighting community.

“Words cannot express the affection these men have for their roosters,” lobbyist Scott Johnson told the committee.

To help make his point, he distributed a photograph of William-Bernard Britton, president of the state game fowl organization, with his prize 6-year-old brood rooster.

“I think the look on that bird’s face and the look on Billy’s face says it all,” Mr. Johnson said.

Animal-rights activists, however, painted a different picture.

“I’ve been to cockfights,” said John Goodwin, manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “I’ve seen a rooster cut across the chest so deeply I could see his internal organs move with each breath.”

He said Virginia would become a national laughingstock if it allowed such brutality by nine “cockfighting pits” seeking the exemption under the auspices of the game fowl organization, which claims about 2,000 members statewide.

Under current Virginia law, cockfighting is illegal only if gambling is involved — and even then, it’s only a misdemeanor. Animal-rights groups and prosecutors say the weak law has made Virginia a magnet for cockfighters from neighboring states where the blood sport is a felony.

The bill by House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, would put cockfighting on equal footing with dogfighting, which is a felony in Virginia.

“There is no logic to distinguish between the brutality of fighting cocks and the brutality of fighting dogs,” said Robin Starr, head of the Richmond chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It is all brutality, and it demeans our society and our civilization.”

The bill also includes several provisions making it easier for authorities to investigate and prosecute dogfighters. The legislation stems largely from the case of suspended NFL star Michael Vick, who is serving a 23-month prison term for a federal dogfighting conspiracy.

Mr. Johnson said cockfighters — or cockers, as they call themselves — have been unfairly tarred by the Vick case. He said his clients do not oppose cracking down on gambling and other illegal activity at cockfights but oppose “criminalizing their sport.”

At the organization’s behest, Sen. Philip P. Puckett, Russell Democrat, offered the amendment to exempt the nine cockfighting operations from the legislation. In a letter to state officials, the game fowl group portrayed the nine as clean operations that forbid gambling, drinking, attendance by minors and illegal immigrants, and even swearing.

Henry County prosecutor Robert L. Bushnell, president of the Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association, said those unsavory activities are common at some of the pits, and Mr. Goodwin of the Humane Society said it would be naive to think money was not changing hands.

The committee rejected the exemption amendment by a vote of 11-3.

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A House committee put a quick end yesterday to a Senate-passed bill that would have boosted gasoline taxes by 5 cents per gallon over five years.

The House Finance Committee voted 14-6 to table a bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, that was intended to generate cash to maintain the state’s highway system.

Mr. Saslaw, under no illusion that his bill would pass the Republican-controlled House panel, warned that the soaring costs of road repairs will consume all road-construction money in seven years.

By law, road maintenance takes priority over new construction. So by July 2015, Mr. Saslaw told the panel, those costs will eclipse all the road-construction revenue.

The cost of maintenance increases by $65 million a year as a result of inflation, he said.

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Mr. Saslaw, chairman of a committee looking at bills to reform the payday lending industry, threatened to effectively kill the legislation for the year unless both sides can work out an agreement.

Mr. Saslaw, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, said yesterday that he would refuse to appoint conferees to work out issues between the Senate and House proposals if a compromise couldn’t be reached behind the scenes.

Last year, he pulled his industry-written bill in the final hours of the session for fear that Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, would put stricter regulations on payday lenders if the bill reached his desk.

The industry favors the Senate version, while payday lending opponents favor the House’s bill.

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Legislation to block the public from records of Virginians with permits to carry concealed handguns died yesterday.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 9-7 to carry over the bill until next year.

Delegate David A. Nutter’s bill originally would have prohibited access to a state police database of permit holders. The House added a provision allowing Circuit Court clerks to release only the names of permit holders while keeping all other identifying personal information secret.

Mr. Nutter, Christianburg Republican, encouraged the committee to delete that provision in order to keep the database protection alive, but the Democrat-controlled committee declined.

Last year, the Roanoke Times posted the state police database on its Web site. Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell advised the state police to stop making the list available, but Mr. Nutter said any Circuit Court judge could overrule Mr. McDonnell’s opinion.

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The Senate yesterday derailed a bill that would have provided homeowners an exemption of up to one-fifth of their home’s value from property taxes.

The vote means a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would have given cities and counties the option of a 20 percent exemption on private homes is unlikely to appear on statewide ballots this fall.

The legislation that Mr. Kaine promised as a candidate three years ago was recommitted to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, likely for the year.

The vote represents a triumph for Virginia’s corporate lobby, which fought the legislation on grounds that it would boost taxes on business.

Two Senate Democrats — Charles J. Colgan Sr. of Prince William and Mr. Puckett — sided with the committee’s Republican minority to sidetrack the bill.

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