By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers signed into law a bipartisan proposal Wednesday making it a felony to trespass or damage oil or gas pipelines in Wisconsin, a step that opponents said would violate free-speech rights and disproportionately affect American Indians whose lands are often harmed by pipeline projects.
Evers said he had problems with the bill but signed it anyway.
“I have said — and reaffirm today — that our Tribal Nations deserve to have a voice in the policies and legislation that affect indigenous persons and our state,” Evers said in a statement. “I expect that moving forward members of the Legislature will engage in meaningful dialogue and consultation with Wisconsin’s Tribal Nations before developing and advancing policies that directly or indirectly affect our Tribal Nations and indigenous persons in Wisconsin.”
The new law builds upon another one from 2015 that had made it a felony to intentionally trespass or cause damage to the property of an energy provider. The bill Evers signed expands the definition of energy providers’ property to include oil and gas pipelines, renewable-fuel systems and chemical and water infrastructure.
Those found guilty of violations could be faced with as much as $10,000 in fines and six years in prison.
The legislation had broad support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, organized labor unions, utilities, the state chamber of commerce and a variety of trade groups representing farmers, restaurants, the paper industry and others.
Supporters downplayed its intent, calling it a response to an oversight from the earlier law.
Opponents included the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Sierra Club.
Opponents argued at a public hearing in September that they weren’t advocating for violence, but were concerned that the proposal would unnecessarily escalate penalties for activities that are already crimes and possibly ensnare people who didn’t realize they were protesting on private property.
Nine other states have similar laws, according to Greenpeace, which was opposed to the legislation.