Oregon lawmakers will again consider a controversial bill that would block local governments from regulating agriculture, including banning biotech crops.
Senate Bill 633 died in committee earlier this year during the regular legislative session, but Gov. John Kitzhaber has revived it as part of a broader legislative package in calling a special session for Sept. 30.
The “framework” hammered out by Kitzhaber and legislative leaders is aimed at reducing the state’s liabilities under its public employee pension system, raising new tax revenue and allocating money for schools and other programs.
The revival of SB633 is heartening for supporters such as the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which fear that a patchwork of county biotech regulations would complicate life for growers and threaten their options for growing crops.
“We believe that all farmers in Oregon should get to play by the same rules,” said Scott Dahlman, executive director at OFS.
The state’s preemption of local bans on biotech crops would not apply to Jackson County, which already has an initiative on the ballot for the May 2014 election.
Similar initiatives were launched in Benton and Lane counties, but haven’t made it onto the ballot because of legal issues in their language, said Dahlman.
While Kitzhaber included SB633 in the legislative package after negotiating with Republican and Democratic party leaders, the bill’s effect remains to be seen, he said.
“They don’t speak for everyone, so you never know how the rest of the legislators are going to react,” Dahlman said.
The governor has said that he will not sign any of the bills unless the entire package has been passed by the legislature.
Katie Fast, vice president of public policy at the Oregon Farm Bureau, said she doesn’t expect the legislative package to undergo major changes when lawmakers convene.
“This is a very tediously negotiated package,” she said.
The bills will need to go through a committee process prior to a vote before the entire legislature, but it’s unclear how much its provisions will be debated, Fast said.
The package contains “a little bit of something for everyone,” as well as pieces they don’t like, she said.
Proponents of biotech bans in Oregon counties say they are disappointed that SB633 was included in the package because it has nothing to do with revenues, pension reform or schools.
“It’s a pretty naked power grab to deny citizens their democratic rights,” said Brian Comnes, a chief petitioner with GMO Free Jackson County.
Although the ballot initiative in Jackson County wouldn’t be affected by the bill, Comnes said SB633 will take away local control from communities.
“This is not just a local issue,” he said, adding that the bill doesn’t address co-existence between biotech, organic and conventional crops. “SB633 does nothing to solve the problem.”
Scott Bates, acting director of the GMO Free Oregon group, said he would like lawmakers to come up with a solution for school funding and pension reform that doesn’t include the bill.
“It stinks, honestly,” he said. “I honestly hope it sinks the whole deal.”
The bill was likely “shoved” into the package by supporters who know that SB633 wouldn’t be able to pass as a standalone message, Bates said.
Banning counties from setting their own biotech rules may prompt a statewide ballot initiative against genetically modified crops, he said.
Currently, counties can set their preferences according to the will of their voters, Bates said. “You can address it in that area. If you do it at the state level, you force it on everyone.”