Lawmakers on Thursday failed to override Gov. Matt Mead’s veto of a controversial bill that sought to prevent a Wyoming version of the Standing Rock pipeline protests by criminalizing impeding “critical infrastructure.”
An override succeeded in the Senate, but bill proponents did not have the votes to follow through in the House, where the override fell far short of the necessary 40 aye votes, 20-33. The Wyoming Constitution requires approval of “two-thirds of the members elected” to override a veto. The House has 60 members.
In a letter addressed to Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), Mead on Wednesday night said Senate File 74 was too poorly crafted to become law. Mead expressed support for the legislation’s goal, however, and suggested lawmakers work on a way to protect critical infrastructure over the months before next year’s session, the letter said.
“I was disappointed when I received the bill,” Mead wrote, “because in my view, the bill despite the hard work of many, is flawed.”
Since the bill originated in the Senate, that chamber was required to consider the veto first. Senators voted 20-4 to override with no debate.
Debate in the House over SF-74 was fierce on each of three floor votes. The representatives adopted many amendments in its attempts to address concerns raised by landowners and other opponents. On Thursday, bill proponents argued representatives should pass the bill despite the governor’s concern, also registered by many of their colleagues, that it was poorly crafted.
“I think we did what we were supposed to do as a body,” said Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), a bill sponsor. “We worked the bill and I think we worked it pretty hard.”
Lawmakers, like all human beings, are incapable of perfection, Olsen said. As such, lawmakers shouldn’t try to pass perfect legislation but should move the bill forward now, he said.
“We strive for progress and we leave perfection for those who can actually achieve it,” Olsen said.
But even the number of hours the House worked on the bill couldn’t save bad legislation, said Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie). “It’s the old adage of lipstick on a pig — it started out ugly and you didn’t make it any prettier,” he said.
The governor’s veto appeared to sway lawmakers. Eleven representatives who voted to pass the bill on its final floor vote voted against the override.
Rep. Mark Kinner (R-Sheridan) was one. “To me it just became apparent that we were really kind of rushing this thing through,” he told WyoFile. “That didn’t feel good to me.”
The roller coaster override votes capped a convoluted legislative process for SF-74. Earlier in the session, the bill failed a House committee vote that had opponents celebrating its demise until the committee chairman, Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland), resurrected it through a procedural maneuver. The bill ran into stiff opposition on the House floor where representatives passed more than a dozen amendments to it. Some amendments were designed to counter charges that the legislation would chill people’s right to free speech by making protesters vulnerable to felony charges, and organizations supporting them vulnerable to $1 million fines. One amendment cut the fine provision to $100,000.
But opponents were not assuaged, claiming the measure still placed corporate interests above citizen rights. Over the last few days, several Wyoming environmental groups, civil rights advocates, and landowner organizations called on people to ask the governor to veto the bill.
Mead did not reference concerns about free speech or the right to protest in his veto letter. He said the bill created “new crimes for activities already covered by other statutes,” but did not cover critical infrastructure construction. The definition of what is “critical” infrastructure was too broad, Mead said.
It “draws in critical, but also unfortunately, ordinary facilities,” he said. Particularly concerning to the governor was the inclusion of agricultural facilities — “any fenced dam that supplies irrigation” and any “fenced storage facility.” The latter could include hay barns and storage sheds, Mead said.
“There are thousands of these in Wyoming on ranches, farms and elsewhere,” Mead wrote.
“These examples reflect a bill imprecisely crafted, a bill that needs additional work,” Mead wrote. “These flaws can hinder this important effort.”
Fenced storage facilities were in the original bill, which closely mirrored the language of a model bill posted to the website of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry lobby supported in part by oil, gas, and other infrastructure businesses. The language including irrigation dams was added by the Wyoming Legislature.
In the House, several rancher lawmakers argued against the bill. They said it would put them at a disadvantage in disputes with energy industries and could make them liable for actions taken on their own private property by their employees. Energy and communications infrastructure dots ranches throughout the state.
Industry groups and other proponents said the bill is needed to protect their facilities to ensure the delivery of utility and communications services that keep homes warm and people safe. They said there was no attempt to infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech and legal dissent.
Environmentalists, civil rights advocates and a Native American advocacy group based on the Wind River Reservation have fought the measure since its filing. They charged that it was designed to stifle dissent against the energy industry and threatened tribal sovereignty. Existing laws protect private property from trespassing and vandalism, they said.
The bill was intended to provide industry a legal cudgel to wield against groups whose efforts to protect people and the environment could be characterized as illegal attempts to slow or stop fossil fuel production, they said.
Joyce Evans, a Carbon County rancher and the president of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said she met with Mead on Wednesday as he considered whether to veto the bill. Mead met with lawmakers and organizations on both sides of the issue, Evans said.
“I think he gave all sides his full attention,” she said.
If the state wants to find a way to protect critical infrastructure, Evans said, it should be done over months and with a legislative committee. “If the best brains in Wyoming were put on the problem, if there is a problem, we could come up with a far better bill,” she said. “Nobody wants our water poisoned or our lights knocked out.”
The following representatives voted in favor of the bill on third reading but then voted against overriding Mead’s veto: Reps. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), Bill Henderson (R-Cheyenne), Mark Kinner (R-Sheridan), Bunky Loucks (R-Casper), Joe MacGuire (R-Casper), Jerry Obermueller (R-Casper), Garry Piiparinen (R-Evanston), Tim Salazar (R-Dubois), Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) and Tom Walters (R-Casper).
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) continued to maintain his conflict and six other members were excused and absent.
Correction: This story has been changed to correct the name of Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois) and the party affiliation of Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie).