Update: The Senate voted 21-9 Saturday morning to accept the House’s changes to Senate File 74 crimes against critical infrastructure.
With the Senate concurrence, the bill has passed the Legislature and will now go to Gov. Matt Mead for his signature or veto.
Senate debate was limited, but at least two members expressed concern over the extent of the House amendments to the bill.
“It’s just that there’s five or six pages of amendments here,” said Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange). “Felonies change your life forever and we need to be very careful with this. At this time I can’t say I’ve given it due diligence.”
But the bill’s principal sponsor, Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), downplayed the impact of the amendments. “After the Legislative Service Office got done with it, it’s not nearly as complex as it appears,” he said.
The House on Friday heavily amended then passed a controversial bill that would curtail protests by enhancing penalties on those who interfere with “critical infrastructure,” 36-23.
The late afternoon debate was dramatic. Several proponents of the bill turned against it in the end, saying the rights of ranchers and private property owners had not been sufficiently protected.
“In Wyoming … we’re probably all here in a small regard for property rights based on that aspect of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance). He proposed four amendments to the bill, and advocated fiercely for it on the floor. But the work was not enough, he said in the final debate, for lawmakers to “feel comfortable knowing this was not going to negatively impact our citizens.”
Other lawmakers said they had turned against the bill because of contact from their constituents. “As you know I’m pro-business development and economic growth,” began Rep. Dan Furphy (R-Laramie).
“But I’ve been accused by my constituents, and in fact they’re accusing the entire body, of being influenced too much by big business,” Furphy said. “Let’s not ignore our constituents. They know what’s right. We need to pay attention to them.”
But bill proponents dismissed those concerns. The bill was designed to protect Wyoming industry from environmental organizations, many of which are out of state, they said. Likewise, much of the correspondence against the bill was coming from out-of-staters, they said.
“A lot of your emails are coming from groups outside Wyoming that are the ones doing this protest and obviously have a stake in this,” said Rep. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester).
Before amendments, the bill was a close copy of model legislation posted online by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry group.
As such, blaming opposition to the bill on out of staters was ironic, one bill opponent said. “This original idea was formulated by a group that’s outside of this state,” said Rep. Jim Byrd (D-Cheyenne).
The bill was brought to lawmakers by a lobbyist for the energy industry employed by the law firm Holland & Hart.
Though the bill had passed out of the Senate without major changes, its path through House included several twists and turns.
The House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee amended the bill, then voted it down. Opponents said lawmakers bent the rules for the energy industry and pressured Rep. Bill Henderson (R-Cheyenne) to change his vote. The committee reconvened and voted a second time, passing the bill.
The House amended SF-74 seven times in its first and second floor debates. Many of the amendments attempted to ensure the bill would have no unintended consequences for ranchers and landowners negotiating with energy companies or who impede access to infrastructure on their private property.
Lawmakers also attempted to address fears that the bill’s aim was to suppress dissent against the energy industry following the Standing Rock pipeline protests in North Dakota. Lindholm brought an amendment to add the following clause:
“Nothing in this section shall be construed to apply to picketing, public demonstrations or other expressions of free speech and association protected under the United States and Wyoming constitutions.”
But that amendment did not erase the concerns of those who say the bill is designed to suppress dissent.
“The problem isn’t that we need to put more words in a bill saying your free speech is protected,” said Sabrina King, policy director for the ACLU Wyoming. “The problem is the rest of the bill is a message that our critical infrastructure is the most important thing in Wyoming and if you dare speak out against any piece of it, we’ll come after you.”
The amendments passed in the House do nothing to soften the bill’s true purpose, King said, which is to give the energy industry a weapon against protesters and environmental groups in Wyoming.
“This bill will absolutely be used to threaten and intimidate organizations who cannot risk a $100,000 fine … if something should happen to go wrong at their protests,” she said. “That amendment did not go far enough.”
By the end of second reading, the bill had gone through so many changes that one lawmaker, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) asked for an updated copy of the bill to be produced before the final vote. “If we don’t there’s only about 13 people who understand it,” he said.
On Friday, the House amended the bill five more times.
Lindholm brought a new amendment to remove the word “picketing” from his earlier addition.
The amendments piled on because lawmakers were trying to avoid unintended consequences from the bill, despite an assurance from the bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), that “there are no unintended consequences.”
Votes on each amendment were close. Though conducted with a voice vote, Harshman repeatedly had to ask lawmakers to stand up so he could count who had shouted aye or no.
Bill proponents pushed back against the idea that the Legislature had been “bought” by out-of-state interests. Energy companies are an in-state interest, said Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), a bill sponsor. “They are critical to Wyoming. They fund Wyoming.”
To see which representatives voted for or against SF-74 Friday in the House, and which senators voted for or against concurrence with that chamber’s amendments Saturday morning, visit the LSO’s online digest of the bill’s journey through the Legislature.