BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s Republican-led and largely oil-friendly Legislature is quickly introducing a raft of bills spurred by the bitter dispute between Dakota Access protesters and law enforcement, from restricting face coverings at protests to requiring the state to sue the federal government as a means of recouping millions in policing costs.
Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson and the state GOP chairman, said the measures are motivated by residents’ frustration with the ongoing protests in the southern part of the state, which at one point in the summer saw a thousands-strong encampment opposing the $3.8 billion, four-state pipeline.
“When people are having their lives disrupted, you’re going to see things move up here,” said Armstrong, an oil company executive and a former defense attorney. “It’s very difficult to write ‘protest laws.’ We need to make sure there is reasonable application of the law in all circumstances, whether protest-related or not.”
Faced with protest-weary constituents, lawmakers have put forth several bills in the young biennial session — and more may be coming. Among them are: making it a crime for adults to wear masks in most cases — similar to one that lasted for nearly 50 years that was aimed at the Ku Klux Klan — and exempting a driver from liability if they unintentionally injure or kill a pedestrian obstructing traffic on a public road or highway.
Another, now-withdrawn measure would have had the state try to claim land and valuable mineral rights in the pipeline’s path under the Missouri River as reimbursement for state law enforcement costs.
But there are dissenters over the bills, including Democratic state Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla. No Democrats have introduced protest-related measures, and the GOP has a supermajority, though it’s common for chambers to disagree on key bills.
“Knee-jerk legislation often is poor legislation,” said Nelson, a failed 2016 gubernatorial candidate and one of the few North Dakota lawmakers who has visited the encampment near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
That tribe, another in South Dakota and their supporters believe the project, which is to carry North Dakota oil through South Dakota and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois, threatens drinking water and Native American cultural sites. Texas-based developer Energy Transfer Partners denies that.
Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, like his GOP predecessor and most in the Legislature, have been sympathetic to pipeline builders and to law enforcement and residents affected by the protests.
Burgum said in his state of the state address earlier this month that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe raised “legitimate issues” but “those have been hijacked by those with alternative agendas.” He said criminal activity will not be tolerated.
“To those North Dakotans personally affected by this ongoing dispute, we hear your concerns,” Burgum said. “Be assured that maintaining the rule of law in our state remains our priority.”
GOP Rep. Keith Kempenich is pushing legislation that would require the state attorney general to sue the federal government to help cover costs for policing a protest. Already, the Dakota Access protests have cost the state more than $22 million and there have been nearly 600 arrests in the region since August.
He’s also sponsoring the driver exemption, crafted after his 72-year-old mother-in-law was blocked by protesters waiving signs on a roadway.
“They’re intentionally putting themselves in danger,” Kempenich said of the protesters.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson said he still has some concerns about whether any protest-related legislation could spur lawsuits or add to the state’s prison population that’s soared due to crime accompanying the rise in oil production.
“We have to make sure there are no unintended consequences,” Wardner said.