House passes infrastructure protest bill

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The Kansas House on Tuesday approved a bill that’s intended to protect critical infrastructure but criticized as chilling free speech.

The chamber voted to 82-42 to pass the bill, which creates new penalties for trespassing or damaging critical infrastructure and rewrites the state’s racketeering law to include four new crimes.

The bill, which must return to the Senate for one last approval after it was amended, also allows a judge to order restitution for property damage to any of the victims.

The bill is backed by the petrochemical industry, which said in testimony the increased penalties are essential to safeguarding sensitive infrastucture critical to the economy.

The legislation, which has already passed the Senate on a 29-9 vote, covers natural gas pipelines, the water supply, dams, railroad tracks and transmission facilities for radio and television stations, among others.

The bill was amended on the House floor to address concerns that the bill would target Native Americans and their ability to protest.

The bill was tweaked to recognize the right of Kansans and citizens of the state’s four sovereign nations to protest peacefully while protecting important infrastructure.

Republican state Rep. Mark Schreiber of Emporia said the amendment was intended to ensure that the legislative intent was not to restrict peaceful protests.

The Brennan Center for Justice reports that 18 states have passed or considered laws toughening the penalties for trespassing and damaging infrastructure following a 2016 protest at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Critics have said the bill is part of a coordinated effort by “fossil fuel interests
and partisan ideological organizations to chill political speech and activities in pursuit of their own economic and political interests.”

Democratic state Rep. Boog Highberger said the amendement was a good-faith effort to address concerns about the bill, which he characterized as cookie-cutter legislation developed by the conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council.

Highberger said the bill was too broad, explaining it could lead to charges against someone trespassing on a field to skinny dip in a pond with a distant oil pump elsewhere on the same parcel of land connected to a pipeline.

“This bill is a solution in search of a problem,” Highberger said. “This is not necessary. It’s overbroad.”

Highberger said there had been no charges brought in Kansas in 2020 and 2019 under the statutes that are being revised in the bill.

Democratic state Rep. Christina Haswood, one of two Native Americans serving in the Legislature, said there is no evidence of the problems that the bill is intended to address.

“This bill targets the Native American community where we’ve seen similar legislation pop up around the country,” Haswood said.

“The bill will disproportionately impact the Native American Community (and) our constituents who exercise their First Amendment right by peacefully protesting.”