I can cover the highs and lows of the recent legislative budget session and only discuss one bill.
One terrible zombie monstrosity from out-of-state that didn’t succumb to popular opposition until a week after the Legislature should have adjourned.
How bad was Senate File 74? It threatened our free speech rights by proposing to criminalize protest and impeding “critical infrastructure” — a sweeping category that would have included gas and oil pipelines, refineries and mines but also cable TV lines, cell towers and irrigation ditches. One would be hard pressed to spit in Wyoming without hitting “critical infrastructure” by the bill’s definition. And if a prosecutor decided your expectoration damaged or impeded the operation of the facility in question, SF-74 called for 10 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
For organizations that “aided and abetted” protests that caused damage, the Senate called for a fine up to $1 million. The House lowered it to a maximum of $100,000, which is still more than the fine for any criminal state statute on the books and a defacto deathblow to most advocacy groups.
Why on earth would we need such a bill? The bill’s proponents said it was to prevent a Dakota Access Pipeline style mass-protest from happening in Wyoming.
In 2016 the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and hundreds of supporters protested the completion of the DAPL, claiming the oil and gas transport line threatened their water supply, sacred lands and ultimately their sovereignty. The peaceful protest morphed into a months-long, sit-in style obstruction campaign amid an especially bitter northern plains winter.
It got ugly. Demonstrators and journalists endured attack dogs, pepper spray, arrests, strip searches and fire-hoses in sub-zero weather.
The Obama administration eventually responded by using the permitting process to require the company to explore a safer, less sensitive route for its project. It was a short-lived victory for tribal and conservation advocates — the Trump administration reinstated DAPL’s permits shortly after taking office — but the affair spooked Wyoming’s resource barons and their puppets in Cheyenne all the same.
Wyoming has never remotely had a situation like Standing Rock, but that didn’t stop the conservative think-tank the American Legislative Exchange Council from creating so-called model legislation to punish protests against industry and shopping here and in other states. Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta) sponsored the bill, but opponents charged it was taken verbatim from the ALEC proposal.
The Senate passed SF-74 by a 25-5 vote then sent the bill to the House where it was heard by the House Minerals Committee.
House minerals killed it on a 4-4 vote — majority support is required for a bill to proceed out of committee. That should have put the issue to rest but in a nearly unprecedented move, committee chairman Mike Greear (R-Worland) used a technicality — he’d failed to sign the bill’s jacket and thus officially complete the committee process — to weasel out of the panel’s decision and call a revote the next day. Two legislators, Rep. Bill Henderson (R-Cheyenne) and Rep. Tom Crank (R-Kemmerer), flip-flopped and the “zombie bill” went to the full House for debate. The two men cracked under industry pressure, outraged bill opponents said.
SF-74 went on to pass the House 36-23, heavily amended, with much heart-felt debate.
I was stunned by the twisted, illogical support for SF-74. Conservative legislators who continually rant about outsiders, including other governmental entities, telling Wyoming what to do embraced the ALEC bill with an almost religious fervor, even absurdly denying its origin.
Democrats and a few Republicans raised concerns about citizens’ free speech rights, and a contingent of ranchers led by Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) questioned the bill’s negative impact on property rights.
“This isn’t even our bill,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie). “Just vote it down today.”
Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) said he wanted to “dispel the myth” that the bill came from out of state. He said he co-sponsored it because a refinery in his district asked a law firm to help put together a bill. “It just so happens that there is model legislation that they looked to, but that’s not uncommon in our legislative process,” he said. “We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel and we didn’t. But we made this bill Wyoming.”
No, what the sponsors likely did was nothing more than click a few computer keys, open the ALEC website and download a bill it copied word-for-word. Or maybe they just opened an ALEC envelope or email. However it got here, SF-74 is no more a Wyoming bill than a drugstore cowboy is a rodeo champ.
Rep. Jim Byrd (D-Cheyenne), a Minerals Committee member, said industry couldn’t take the defeat at Standing Rock. “So the result of this is to truncate your First Amendment rights to go in and do what you think is necessary underneath that thing we hold very dear, that binds the basics of our country, the Bill of Rights,” he said.
For pure sarcasm no one could touch Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), who scoffed at those who raised concerns. “I’ve had to choke back the tears on the [sight] of my rights being trampled right in front of my eyes,” he said mockingly. “I hope that my emotions will hold as I venture to discuss this in further detail.” Larsen, it’s worth noting, owns a pipeline construction company.
Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne) claimed the bill protects free speech but warned protesters about their conduct. “You’d better stick to the law. Go out there and have a friendly protest, that’s great,” he said. “But don’t damage things, don’t impede an ongoing operation that costs or could damage or injure people or industries. Or our income streams in Wyoming — after all, it does fund our education.”
I wonder what Eklund and other legislators would think if they had family members who had been injured by “security” thugs hired by DAPL. Would industry still be all-important, or would people matter too?
“The East India Tea Company would have loved SF-74,” said Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie), drawing an apt comparison to the historic protest in Boston Harbor that was prelude to the Revolutionary War.
It went unmentioned during House debate, but Bull Connor — commissioner of public safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, during the civil rights protests of the 1960s — would have loved it too. Had he been empowered to lock up Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for a decade and fine the Southern Christian Leadership Conference $1 million, things may have turned out very differently.
A court challenge seemed certain if the bill became law, but Republican Gov. Matt Mead vetoed the misguided measure, which he called “flawed” and said needs more work. Mead — who is unencumbered by political concerns after deciding not to seek elected office again — said he agrees it is necessary to ensure critical infrastructure is safe and secure.
But he criticized the bill for its protection of what he called “ordinary” facilities like hay barns and irrigation dams. Mead said existing Wyoming laws already cover attempts to impede or damage critical infrastructure. We already have laws against trespass and damaging property.
I was initially confident that Mead’s arguments, combined with increasingly forceful public opposition, would finally seal the measure’s fate. But the Senate voted to override the veto without breaking stride, 20-5. That left it all up to the House. Since House backers only needed to add four more votes to get to 40, two-thirds of the chamber, chances of keeping it from becoming law looked bleak.
I was even more pessimistic when Republicans caucused immediately before the vote. The GOP closes all of its caucus meetings — the laissez faire attitude toward free speech doesn’t extend to doing the public’s business in private — so there’s no telling what they discussed, but such secret sessions are often the vehicle for party leaders to press for a unified stand on an issue.
Early in the voting, though, it was clear that party lines weren’t going to hold. Conservatives like Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) and Mark Kinner (R-Sheridan) refused to extend their support to the veto override, despite having voted for the bill’s passage. A bloc of five Casper Republicans –— House Speaker Steve Harshman, Bunky Loucks, Joe MacGuire, Jerry Obermueller and Tom Walters — also rejected the override effort, which failed by an unexpectedly lopsided 20-33 vote.
What made the difference? Loucks said Mead’s veto message that explained the bill wasn’t ready to become law “resonated with me.”
“We amended it a lot,” he recalled. “At one point someone asked if we even knew exactly what was in the bill, and I admitted I didn’t.”
The bill’s failure could be chalked up as a temporary loss for supporters who vowed to sponsor a similar measure in 2019. Or it could be permanent if opponents get on the ball and launch a year-long campaign against this and all ALEC bills. Most Wyoming voters will reject the idea that our state should mindlessly adopt prototype bills of any stripe. And consideration of the basic un-American attitude the bill takes toward the First Amendment and our cherished rights should doom it.