By ALEX MORRELL
BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The state House passed a bill Wednesday that would put felony animal abuse laws on the books in Idaho for the first time and would take the steam out of a ballot initiative by animal rights groups seeking much stiffer penalties.
Under the legislation, people convicted of torturing pets or companion animals would face a felony charge on the third offense, and organizers of gamecock fights where drugs and gambling are present would face felony charges on the first offense.
The measure was applauded by animal welfare groups.
House lawmakers voted 64-4 to pass the plan, which sponsor Sen. Ken Andrus calls a realistic proposal that toughens state laws while still protecting Idaho's agriculture industry by exempting livestock and production animals.
"In my mind, we've done the prudent thing to do," said Andrus, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee. "I think it's naive to think we cannot do anything."
That House committee approved a separate animal abuse bill later Wednesday, which the livestock industry has supported. That plan would apply to all animals and make a third animal cruelty conviction in 15 years a felony.
Animal rights activists say that plan does not go far enough because it doesn't address torture or rooster fights.
The livestock industry-backed legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in February, but was considered weak by the animal rights groups seeking a stricter voter initiative.
Idaho's powerful agriculture industry is wary of animal cruelty measures, but Lee Bradshaw, president elect of the Idaho Cattle Association, said people who routinely harm their animals should face tougher penalties.
"I believe individuals who continually neglect such responsibilities should be punished accordingly," Bradshaw said.
Idaho and the Dakotas are the only states without a felony animal cruelty law, and either bill considered Wednesday would remove Idaho from the list.
Meanwhile, animal rights groups are in the process of collecting nearly 50,000 signatures to put an initiative in front of voters in November asking for first-offense felonies in some instances.
But Andrus' animal torture bill has curried support from some of the animal rights groups and divided that effort.
The Humane Society of the United States, once in favor of the ballot initiative, applauded the Idaho Legislature on passing the anti-torture measure.
And by acting now, lawmakers can show the public they've taken the issue seriously in even if the initiative makes it in front of voters, said Andrus, chairman of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee
"I think there is some justification for concern about mistreatment of animals. I've tried to do this in a way that is reasonable," Andrus said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.