Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, was hopeful the third time would be the charm for a bill proposing to do something that is common practice in most other states: make aggravated abuse of dogs and cats a first-time felony offense.
But recent decisions by Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to double-refer this year’s animal cruelty bills do not bode well for passage.
When Hill and other lawmakers brought forth similar bills in the past, they were met with a powerful foe: the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. Farm Bureau spent around $30,000 on lobbying efforts in the 2015 legislative session and $41,000 in the 2014 legislative session, according to lobbyist reports.
Once again, bills in both houses seeking to enhance the penalties and strengthen reporting of people who are convicted of aggravated abuse of dogs and cats have been double referred to the Agriculture and Judiciary committees. In the past, when similar bills were double referred, they died.
Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairmen have ties to Farm Bureau. Rep. Bill Pigott, R-Tylertown, is former president of the Walthall County Farm Bureau. Farm Bureau commended both Pigott and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, for their roles in helping to defeat animal welfare legislation in 2016.
The Federation in its 2016 legislative recap said the proposed laws “would have placed a burden on production agriculture,” and also applauded Gunn and Reeves for their efforts to block the bills.
Hill’s bill would make first-time aggravated abuse of a dog or cat a felony. Aggravated abuse is defined as intentionally maiming, mutilating, torturing, burning, scalding, suffocating, drowning or starving to death and disfiguring.
Conviction would carry a fine of not more than $5,000 and imprisonment between 1 to 5 years, and the person would undergo a mandatory psychological evaluation.
“It’s just not normal behavior to torture an animal, to scald it or set it on fire … Hopefully something can be done before they move on to doing something like this to a human,” Hill said.
The bill would also allow a person to be charged with up to 10 counts each of simple and aggravated animal abuse.
Senate Bill 2600 is co-authored by Sens. David Parker, Kevin Blackwell, and Sean Tindall, chairman of the Senate Judiciary A Committee.
Hill says she is simply trying to bring Mississippi up to speed with the rest of the country in combating abuse of dogs and cats. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Mississippi ranks in the bottom tier of states for laws that protect animals.
Tennessee, for example, has its own state animal abuse registry, similar to a sex offender registry.
“Many times people go out and hunt stray animals in the neighborhood to abuse or do some kind of ritual with or fight, so that would allow somebody to know where people who’ve been convicted of these things are living so they better protect their animal,” Hill said.
Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, and Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, also filed animal cruelty bills specific to domesticated dogs and cats.
When asked about the fate the bills on Monday, Pigott said he is waiting on an amendment from a subcommittee. He declined to say which committee member is bringing forward the amendment or who the members of the subcommittee are.
“I’m just trying to do the very best I can with an emotional topic to make sure it is balanced,” he said.
Pigott said he was “not closely” involved with Farm Bureau and that he has not talked to anyone there regarding the bills. He said he does not believe his involvement affects his decisions as Agriculture Committee chairman.
Hudson did not return multiple calls from Mississippi Today reporters. When approached at the State Capitol, he declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Gunn said bills are assigned “according to subject matter.” Pigott echoed that, saying all bills dealing with domestic animals go to the Agriculture Committee.
A request for comment to Reeves’ office was not answered.
Currently, conviction of abuse of cats and dogs in Mississippi is a misdemeanor. In addition, law enforcement is only allowed to bring one count of simple or aggravated animal cruelty, regardless of the number of dogs or cats abused in the incident.
Farm Bureau believes current law is sufficient.
“Farm Bureau would like to see the current law enforced to its fullest extent before adding additional laws,” a statement from the group read.
In current state law, abuse of livestock, defined as “killing, maiming or wounding,” is a first-time felony offense punishable by 1 to 5 years in prison and a fine between $1,500 to $10,000.
As a result of the double referrals, Snowden is not confident about the fate of his bill and others.
“Neither committee in the past has demonstrated much enthusiasm about this legislation. So, realistically, I am doubtful that the bill will advance, which is disappointing,” Snowden said.
“I support stronger animal cruelty legislation for dogs and cats (to which this bill is limited), and I believe a strong majority of ordinary Mississippians do so as well,” he said. “I frankly have difficulty understanding serious opposition though, clearly, there is some in the Legislature.”
After adjourning Monday afternoon, some legislators, including Pigott, headed to the Farm Bureau legislative reception at the Farmer’s Market in Jackson. They were met with a few protesters outside the building.
Hallie Swayze Marshall was one of a handful of protesters with the Mississippi Animal Advocacy Group who stood outside the reception.
The group held signs that read “Shame Farm Bureau Puppy Bill Killers” and “Stop Animal Abuse,” among other similar sentiments.
Marshall said the group was there to support SB 2600 to “raise awareness of the involvement of the Farm Bureau with our legislative process.”
The bill provides law enforcement with the means to handle animal abuse and neglect, she said.
“There are too many instances where a criminal or accused goes free,” Marshall said. “It’s just a slap on the wrist.”
Meanwhile, Hill is bracing for another disappointment this year.
“If we don’t come up here and deal with issues that matter to people, why don’t we just pass a budget and go home?” she asked. “It would save the taxpayers a lot of money.”