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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Greyhound Racing Ban Falters In Oregon Legislature

A. F. Litt
Multnomah Greyhound Park, a former dog track in Wood Village, Oregon, closed in 2004.

You might think that a bill that would outlaw something that doesn't even take place in Oregon might sail through the legislature.

But that isn't the case for a measure that would prohibit greyhound racing. The sport died out more than a decade ago in the state, but an attempt to ban it for good is having trouble getting across the finish line.

Out of the gate, the bill looked like a winner. Democratic state Rep. Shemia Fagan told her colleagues on the House Business and Labor Committee she was sponsoring a bill to ban greyhound racing on behalf of two very important constituents: her dogs, Maggie and Loki.

Maggie and Loki aren't greyhounds. But Fagan said it's her love of dogs that led her to sponsor the bill to ban greyhound racing.

And later came Scott Beckstead, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States. His testimony had a sharper edge. He told lawmakers that greyhound racing is unimaginably cruel and described industry practices that he said lead to massive death and suffering by greyhounds.

And he said the people who like the sport aren't that great, either.

"The crowd that tends to frequent dog tracks is a notoriously rougher crowd than what you see at the horse tracks,” Beckstead said.

It turns out, at least two of the lawmakers on the committee used to attend races at the now-shuttered greyhound track just outside of Portland. Some of them even put down a bet now and then.

"I actually got tuition to go to school one evening at the greyhound [track] …at Multnomah Kennel Club,” said Democrat Margaret Doherty.

For the bill, that testimony could have been a bit of a stumble. But a few weeks later it was back on track, headed for a vote.

Then Representative Doherty wavered. She called the measure a solution looking for a problem. And she didn't want a yes vote to make it sound like she was against greyhound racing.

"To characterize this as a humane bill that is the savior of animals and this kind of thing would absolutely be wrong and untruthful,” Doherty said.

But Beckstead insisted it was about saving dogs and he again listed a litany of grievances against the racing industry.

Republican Representative Jim Weidner then challenged Beckstead’s claims from the first hearing.

"When you came in and you lied to us earlier with your testimony for us to believe,” Weidner said.

Committee chair Paul Holvey called Weidner out of order.

"You cannot impugn somebody's integrity by saying they are a liar,” Holvey said. “He may interpret facts differently than others. But you do not call people liars in this committee."

Holvey called for a break in the hearing and when the committee came back, the measure that would ban greyhound racing in Oregon was gone. Fagan thinks she knows why.

"Suddenly the bill became about that person's testimony instead of about the fact that we should join 39 other states in terms of banning this form of gambling in Oregon,” she said.

Fagan said it's not clear whether the measure will be resurrected, but she said perhaps it doesn't matter that much after all.

"Because we haven't had a greyhound track operable in ten years, there won't be greyhound racing in Oregon whether this bill passes or not,” Fagan said. “So we were just trying to actually take it specifically off the books the statute that allowed greyhound racing."

The racing industry never sent anyone to Salem to testify against the bill. The National Greyhound Association submitted a letter suggesting that the measure was a thinly-veiled attempt by anti-racing groups to put pressure on lawmakers in the handful of states where racing still exists.

The nearest state with an active greyhound track is Arizona.