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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Bob Goff Memorial Library, the Mills branch of the Natrona County Library, pictured Monday. The Mills Town Council passed a resolution to keep the library open on its own after the Natrona County Library cuts ties with the Mills library in March. 

A controversial bill aimed to block protests like Standing Rock is back in the Wyoming Legislature

CHEYENNE — After a veto by then-Gov. Matt Mead at the close of the 2018 budget session, legislation that would create criminal charges for impeding fossil fuel facilities and pipelines during protests is back in the Wyoming Legislature.

Similar in scope to bills introduced in statehouses across the country following the Dakota Access pipeline protests, Rep. Lloyd Larsen’s Crimes Against Critical Infrastructure bill was written with numerous fixes to address questions raised last year.

However, critics told lawmakers at a packed committee hearing Monday that the bill would still restrict people’s lawful right to protest.

This year’s version of the bill is similar to a version introduced last year, which would have made it a crime to purposefully obstruct the construction of “critical infrastructure,” like pipelines. The 2018 iteration of the bill was feared to be flawed, with many critics arguing it was far too vague and unclear in what it would actually do. Others criticized it on First Amendment grounds, arguing the bill served only to restrict free speech and dissuade protests.

In the new legislation, the definition of critical infrastructure has been clarified. It now includes not only fossil fuel infrastructure (which constitutes a majority of the language in the bill) but also transportation facilities, various agricultural installations and reservoirs. The process for bringing charges on an individual or group for “impeding” the construction or operation of critical infrastructure has also been updated, Larsen said, to ensure that charges are only levied if they were knowingly and purposefully violating the law.

Nowhere in there, he said, is language infringing on free speech.

“The concerns I’ve had voiced on the bill is this infringes on my freedom to protest and my ability of free speech,” Larsen, a Lander Republican, said Monday. “That is 10-to-1 of the comments I’ve had. So look at the bill, look at the markups on the bill, and tell me where you see any restrictions on free speech and people’s ability to protest.”

However, many in attendance — including representatives from both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes — argued that the bill does exactly that, and, while the technical issues may have been worked out, the concerns were still the same.

“This is going to make criminals out of a lot of people just doing their day-to-day activities,” said Rep. Aaron Clausen, R-Douglas.

Beyond the right to protest

The Native American-led protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, which drew thousands of people from around the world to join the Standing Rock Sioux in opposition of a pipeline near their land, inspired a push for bills similar to Larsen’s across the country.

Members of the tribes speaking out Monday described the feeling of a “target on their backs.” Existing trespassing laws are adequate, they argued, and the provisions for misdemeanors and felonies outlined within the bill were a means to “intimidate” protesters from standing up for the land they lived in.

“The oil industry is crucial to my people,” said Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, who is a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe. “We have oil royalties we depend on. But with our cultural beliefs, we respect land, water, wildlife and our resources, and there always needs to be that balance. That is the critical infrastructure that’s important to us.”

For those in opposition of the bill — a group that largely consisted of private citizens, tribal members and environmental groups — the narrative went beyond one’s right to protest: It extended to their own rights as landowners. Many questioned what sorts of actions would qualify them as intentionally encumbering a critical infrastructure project.

While some groups — such as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association — lauded the bill’s revision of language regarding private land owners, others disagreed. Monika Leininger, a community organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, noted the bill contained vague language that she believed would be confusing to laypeople and would leave them unsure of their rights as private property owners.

“If it’s in the interest of the government to protect private companies, isn’t it in our interest to protect ranchers and private landowners?” she said.

This concern was echoed by Joyce Evans, a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council who recently co-authored an op-ed against the bill. She said that everything prohibited in the bill is already barred in existing law and was unsure another layer was going to stop the illegality. However, she said that the layers the bill does implement — particularly, the lines about purposeful obstruction — create tricky situations in cases when something like eminent domain is implemented, expressing concern that if she pushed back against eminent domain to protect her land, that would potentially make her a felon.

“I see this bill as taking away my right to be a good steward of the land and making good decisions for the good of the land,” she said.

One of the more compelling moments of testimony came from Devin Oldman, director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office, who noted that on protests on federal or tribal land, it would become hazy whose jurisdiction the law actually covered. He said that the law as written was unworkable, and if the state had an option, it should pursue improving the already existing trespassing laws, rather than create a new one that was targeted toward a particular group.

“I do believe if this law passes it will give the state the go-ahead to arrest members of the tribe on the reservation,” he said. “That, to me, we can’t work out.”

Arguments for the bill

On the other side of the argument, numerous industry groups, lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry and the Wyoming Business Association spoke in favor of the bill. They say protests that impede critical infrastructure don’t just imperil the finances of the companies building them; they affect communities as well.

“We’re in a different day and age, and the impacts of damaging or impeding these facilities — going back to the example of broadband being down or not having gas on a cold day like today — are things that should cause us great concern,” Larsen said.

In the aftermath of the protests on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, entities both public and private suffered severe financial losses. A study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that the protests cost private industry more than $7.5 billion throughout their course, with nearly $38 million in costs to the North Dakota government.

Many of those costs could have been contained, said Steve Lundin, a North Dakota-based private security contractor who was hired to disperse protests around the Dakota Access pipeline, if law enforcement had the proper authority to dissolve demonstrations before they had the chance to escalate.

“The issue we had in North Dakota was we have no statute in place that talks about impeding versus your traditional trespass laws in place,” he said.

He gave the example of a landowner on the east side of a highway who has leased a right of way to a pipeline company to build a pipeline. The area 50 feet out from the highway, he said, would be considered public right of way so, according to statute, people could block access. As long as they stayed in the right of way, they could remain there as long as they wanted, with law enforcement unable to do anything.

That, he said, is what happened with the Dakota Access pipeline protests, which began with a handful of people on a public right of way and, within several months, grew to thousands of protesters.

“Had law enforcement had the tools like this legislation, to be able to have some clear-cut legal remedies in situations with small direct action, we could have prevented a much larger issue that cost tens of millions of dollars to local communities,” he said.

The meeting ended without a vote and will be taken up at the Minerals Committee meeting on Friday, the final day bills can be considered before moving on to the House of Representatives.

Wyoming lawmakers kill tobacco tax, though sponsor says effort may be resurrected

Lawmakers narrowly killed a proposal Monday that would have increased the tax on tobacco products in Wyoming in an effort to raise revenue and cut smoking rates.

The House’s Revenue Committee voted 5-4 to drop the bill, which had been sponsored by Cheyenne Republican Rep. Dan Zwonitzer. It would’ve taxed cigarettes at $1.60 per pack, up from the current charge of 60 cents, and increased the excise tax on snuff, cigars and other tobacco products.

The measure had the support of the lobbying group the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network — which had hoped to broaden the bill to include e-cigarettes and similar products — but Zwonitzer told the Star-Tribune that some members of the committee thought the increase was too high.

“Certainly the heart association and the cancer society were looking ... to send that kind of message, that sticker shock, to have that decrease in the level of consumption,” he said. “The committee felt that was too high.”

Zwonitzer voted yes, as did Reps. Cathy Connolly, JoAnn Dayton-Selman and Jim Roscoe. It was killed by no votes from Reps. Jim Blackburn, Tim Hallinan, Dan Laursen, Pat Sweeney and Cyrus Western.

Jason Mincer, who lobbies for the Cancer Action Network, said he was disappointed by the decision. He said he didn’t want to speculate on the reasons why the committee voted it down, adding that lawmakers did not publicly discuss it during the committee meeting Monday.

“This is a bill that saves lives and keeps people from getting cancer, and each year we don’t pass it is another year that additional folks are getting diagnosed,” he said. “It’s difficult when we aren’t taking control of our tobacco use rates in Wyoming.”

Mincer told the Star-Tribune last week that he was confident in the bill’s success, saying it had a better chance passing than any similar bills in 10 years.

“The reason we like tobacco taxes so much is it’s one of two proven ways we can reduce tobacco usage,” he said Thursday. “Sticker shock at register or limit where folks can smoke via smoke-free laws.”

While the committee may have found the $1 increase too hefty, Mincer said the figure was intentional and pivotal.

“It is really important that the amount of the tax increase remains at a dollar,” he said last week. “We have lots of data showing that tax increases of less than a dollar, the tobacco industry will come in and offer coupons, lower wholesale prices. Consumers won’t see that sticker shock. In order for those health gains to be shown, you have to have that dollar increase.”

According to the fiscal note on the bill, the measure was projected to raise $31.8 million per year in the general fund — the state’s primary spending account — and another $4 million for local government funding annually.

Mincer said the bill mattered both for the revenue it could raise and in the benefits it could bring to Wyomingites who quit smoking. The Equality State has the 44th-highest cigarette tax in the nation, more than a dollar below the $1.79 national average.

According to data from the Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming, nearly 20 percent of adults here smoked in 2016. As of 2015, 16 percent of youths in Wyoming smoked, compared to 11 percent nationally. Both state and national figures have declined steadily from 2001. The Cancer Action Network said the state spends $258 million per year on smoking-associated health costs, with Medicaid shelling out nearly $45 million.

However, Zwonitzer hinted that there was a possibility some sort of legislation to tax tobacco could resurface in the future.

“There are tobacco bills out there,” he said. “I think something the Legislature is looking into is finding a way to tie vape and electronic cigarette products into the tobacco tax, so at bare minimum I believe you’re going to find legislation — either through appropriations or revenue — that defines e-cigarettes and these types of products aimed increasingly at teens, to add those to the statutes, regulate them and tax them at the same level currently or greater than what are in place for cigarettes.”

The final day to file bills in the House is Tuesday.

US envoy: 'Agreement in principle' on peace talks

KABUL, Afghanistan — Negotiators for the U.S. and the Taliban insurgents have reached “agreements in principle” on key issues for a peace deal that would end 17 years of war in Afghanistan, the top U.S. envoy said Monday.

The statement by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad followed six days of talks last week with the Taliban in Qatar, where he urged the Islamic insurgent group to enter into direct negotiations with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Ghani on Monday assured Afghans that their rights will not be compromised in the name of peace with the Taliban, who have been staging near-daily attacks against Afghan forces, causing scores of casualties every week.

Their offensive has not let up despite the severe Afghan winter and the insurgents now hold sway over almost half of the country.

Khalilzad said in an interview with The New York Times that an agreement in principle was reached with the Taliban on the framework of a peace deal “which still has to be fleshed out” that will see the insurgents commit to guaranteeing that Afghan territory is not used as a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

He said the deal could lead to a full pullout of U.S. troops in return for a cease-fire and Taliban talks with the Afghan government.

In his statement released by the U.S. Embassy, Khalilzad said, “We made progress on vital issues in our discussions and agreed to agreements in principle on a couple of very important issues.

“There is a lot more work to be done before we can say we have succeeded in our efforts but I believe for the first time I can say that we have made significant progress,” he said.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he was briefed on the talks and described them as encouraging, but he also said the department has not been directed to prepare for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Speaking before a meeting at the Pentagon with Shanahan, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said any discussion about the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan would be premature. He said Khalilzad briefed NATO allies on the talks weeks ago.

“We are in Afghanistan to create the conditions for a peaceful negotiated solution,” Stoltenberg said. “We will not stay longer than necessary, but we will not leave before we have a situation that enables us to leave or reduce the number of troops without jeopardizing the main goal of our presence and that is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists once again.”

He said he believes it’s too soon to speculate on withdrawal because “what we have to do now is to support the efforts to try to find a peaceful solution. We strongly support those efforts.”

Ghani sought to assure Afghans that no deals would be made without Kabul’s awareness and full participation.

“Our commitment is to provide peace and to prevent any possible disaster,” Ghani said in an address to the nation. “There are values that are not disputable, such as national unity, national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Ghani’s office said he and Khalilzad met late Sunday in Kabul to discuss details from the talks.

Khalilzad has met with the Taliban on a number of occasions in recent months in the latest bid to end America’s longest war. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to topple the Taliban, who were harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

The statement from Ghani’s office also claimed that the Taliban demanded from Khalilzad the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, but that there was also no agreement on that issue.

The statement added that Khalilzad has no authority to discuss issues such as a future Afghan administration but that his goal is to facilitate an intra-Afghan dialogue, meaning direct talks between the Taliban and Kabul.

Khalilzad tweeted Saturday about progress in the talks in Qatar, where the insurgents have a political office, saying: “Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past.”

“We made significant progress on vital issues,” he tweeted, without offering details.

Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban official and currently a member of the High Peace Council, an independent body of clerics and respected Afghan figures, said he believes the Qatar talks resulted in a “good understanding between both sides” but that more discussions are needed in the coming weeks or months.

“Afghanistan’s problem is not so simple that it can be solved in a day, week or month, it needs more time and more discussions,” Mujahid said.

The Taliban in the past refused to negotiate directly with Kabul — a standing that does not appear to have changed. They maintained that they are prepared to talk with U.S. officials only and only about the pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Albany County sheriff's corporal who killed man will return to work, advocacy group says

The Albany County sheriff’s corporal who shot and killed a mentally ill man outside the man’s apartment last year will return to work within weeks and take a new position as a detective, according to a news release from an advocacy group founded following the shooting.

The release, provided Sunday night by Albany County for Proper Policing, states Sheriff Dave O’Malley told the group last week Derek Colling will return to work as a detective. O’Malley said he had no standing to dismiss Colling in part because a grand jury declined to indict Colling earlier this month, according to the release.

O’Malley decided to make Colling a detective because the high-profile nature of the shooting meant it would be better to have the corporal work in a plainclothes position, the release states O’Malley said.

The sheriff did not respond to a message left Monday afternoon seeking comment.

In early November, Colling shot and killed Robbie Ramirez, 39, outside Ramirez’s Laramie apartment. Colling was placed on administrative leave and earlier this month prosecutor Peggy Trent convened a grand jury, which declined to indict Colling.

Colling shot and killed two people while working for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. In both instances, the shootings were determined to be justified. He was later fired from the department following a lawsuit brought by an amateur videographer who said the officer assaulted him.

The Nevada agency settled the lawsuit for $100,000.

“The people of Albany County didn’t want Colling hired in the first place,” ACoPP founding member Karlee Provenza said in the release. “People in Albany County aren’t going to trust Colling to help them solve a crime, and they’re not going to trust the sheriff’s office in general.”

There’s a new nondiscrimination bill in the Wyoming House. How far will it get?

CHEYENNE -- More than 20 years after the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, nearly every state in the U.S. has passed some form of nondiscrimination law, offering a degree of protection to members of the LGBTQ community.

Among the few not to adopt a law is Wyoming which, despite being the site of the crime that sparked national change, still lacks a nondiscrimination ordinance of any sort, even after years of attempts.

This year, however, longtime proponents of the bill hope they can find some success with a new chief sponsor of the bill: a Republican.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, will be carrying a version of a long-futile nondiscrimination ordinance with the backing of a bi-partisan group of high-powered legislators, including the Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, House Majority Whip Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, and Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper.

The group of sponsors also includes freshman legislator Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality. She will lobby for the bill from a legislator’s seat after years promoting a nondiscrimination bill from the other side of the table.

Whether or not the bill gets introduced, however, is another matter. When Zwonitzer – who has often served as a co-sponsor of similar bills, but hasn’t sponsored one in a general session since 2007 — was stopped in the hallway, he said he wasn’t certain when the bill would be discussed. As of Monday afternoon, the bill’s sponsors had no knowledge of where it would go.

“Yep, my name is on it,” Zwonitzer said. “I hope it’s going places. Not sure where it is.”

While nondiscrimination bills often fail (the most recent died in the Senate 17-13), this year’s attempt at a nondiscrimination law takes a markedly different approach. The name of the bill — Enhancing quality employment law – excludes the word “discrimination,” and on the whole, has a different scope than past bills in that it only addresses discrimination in employment, and includes exemptions for religious groups or in cases that would violate someone’s right to free speech in any other scenario already covered under the law.

Essentially, the law would add sexual orientation or gender to classes that are already protected: political affiliation, race, color, sex, creed or age.

The lack of these protections, proponents of the bill say, may have discouraged skilled workers who may be members of the LGBTQ community from joining the state’s economy. According to talking points on the bill obtained by the Star-Tribune, the bill’s sponsors plan on pushing the bill on two battle lines. The first makes the argument that a majority of Wyoming residents support a change in state law – using data from a 2015 Tarrance Group survey to argue that point. The second focuses on why the bill is needed when the state constitution already speaks against discrimination.

“There are no explicit protections under the Wyoming Constitution for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, leaving some Wyoming residents without a clear and secure guarantee that the law protects them,” the memo reads.

Such a lack of protections, the bill’s sponsors argue, come at a detriment to the state’s economy.

“For too long, Wyoming has relied on the booms of a boom and bust economy, and that is simply not sustainable,” Rothfuss said in a statement. “As we seek to diversify our economy, part of that equation must be to attract new businesses and new, skilled workers to our state. HB230 shows potential new businesses and workers that we are committed to providing a welcoming environment for all, and that is an important step in moving Wyoming’s economy to a stable model.”

The timeframe to introduce the bill to a committee is short: the final day to hear bills in a committee of the House of Representatives is Friday.