TALLAHASSEE — Without a single legislator voting "nay," a bill toughening laws against those who butcher horses or sell or purchase their meat is galloping to the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist.
The bill, which cleared the Senate chambers Thursday, had been a legislative priority for the South Florida delegation, where at least 22 pet horses were found slaughtered last year. They are presumably sold for their meat, sometimes even marketed to buyers as beef.
Rep. Luis Garcia, the Miami Democrat who sponsored the measure, said he hoped stiffer penalties would make the crime less likely. If approved by Crist, such acts would become felonies, punishable by a $3,500 fine and a year in jail. Selling horse meat is currently a misdemeanor.
The bill also would criminalize butchering horses for personal use.
"A lot of people are getting hurt, a lot of animals are getting hurt," Garcia said, referring to testimony from animal rights advocates.
Earlier this session, animal advocates predicted that this would be the year for tougher animal protection laws. Several lawmakers filed bills — dealing with snakes, horses, dogs and cats — that would not cost the state any money but would curry favor from voters back home.
That prediction won't necessarily pan out. With only a week to go, a bill banning the sale and import of Burmese pythons and anacondas is still pending in both chambers. And a bill allowing local governments to ban certain breeds of dangerous dogs, such as the pit bull, was killed.
Legislators also have passed over, again, a bill that would ban human-animal sex.
The horse slaughter bill is the first major piece of animal protection legislation to be sent to Crist's desk. But its importance and urgency had to be highlighted for some lawmakers, who were skeptical about why it is necessary.
Rep. Maria Sachs, a Democrat from Delray Beach, spoke of the ''scoundrels" who have broken kids' hearts by stealing and butchering their pet ponies. And Miami Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos relayed the story of a friend who found her pet horse chopped to bits in a forest.