County and city governments in Oregon were recently prohibited from regulating biotech crops by the state legislature.
Whether this “seed pre-emption” bill is aimed at stifling local control of agriculture or preventing an onerous hodgepodge of county-by-county regulations is a matter of perspective.
Yet both proponents and opponents of the bill acknowledge that it played an important role in the passage of a broader legislative package that included tax and pension reforms.
The overall “grand bargain” was brokered by Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislative leaders, then approved during a special session of the legislature on Oct. 2.
Including the seed pre-emption component in this package “was a difficult negotiation,” said Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who was involved in the talks.
Without it, however, Republicans would not have supported the other concepts in the deal, he said.
“In my view, the package would not have passed but for the pre-emption bill,” McLane said.
Opponents of the bill claimed it was crowbarred into the “grand bargain” because legislators wouldn’t have approved it independently outside a special session.
Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, urged his fellow legislators to vote against the bill because it was introduced at the behest of “predatory monopolies.”
“We are doing damage to our credibility and to the very enterprise of government,” he said on the House floor. “It has no place in this procedural environment, if it has any place at all.”
Proponents of the bill, like the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the bill will allow the state to adopt uniform biotech regulations that create a level playing field for farmers.
The Association of Oregon Counties asked the legislature to remove their authority to regulate biotech crops because of the financial burden involved.
Each county where a biotech ban approved by voters would have to spend $300,000 to $500,000 a year to hire an expert as well as support and field staff, testified Gil Riddell, the group’s policy director.
Counties don’t consider their support of the bill as an endorsement of genetic engineering, he said. “This is strictly a matter of where the regulation should take place.”
Opponents weren’t convinced by these arguments.
Frederick predicted that supporters of genetic engineering will next claim the technology should only be regulated by the federal government and not at the state level.
California has allowed several counties to ban genetically modified organisms but it hasn’t resulted in the “chaos” that biotech supporters in Oregon fear, said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.
Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an industry group that supports genetic engineering, worried about numerous anti-biotech county initiatives across the state.
At this point, only Jackson County — which already has an initiative on the May 2014 ballot — will be allowed to vote on a biotech crop ban.
Each county initiative would cost $500,000 or more to oppose, said Paulette Pyle, grassroots director for the group.
If they passed, affected farmers would likely challenge the bans under the Oregon Right to Farm and Forest Act, which prohibits local laws from deeming a farm practice as a nuisance or trespass, Pyle said.
Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas, said the anti-biotech initiatives would amount to job creation laws for attorneys.
“Everybody will be suing everybody,” he said.
Despite the controversy surrounding the seed pre-emption bill, its passage was not the biggest hurdle for the “grand bargain.”
Before convening the special session, Kitzhaber said he would veto the entire legislative package unless all the bills passed.
Tax reform proved to be a contentious initial obstacle, particularly since it needed to be approved by a three-fifths majority of the legislature.
By raising corporate taxes and cutting rates for smaller S corporations, which pass taxes through to shareholders, the bill’s net effect is an additional $189 million in revenues over the next two years.
The corporate taxes soured some Republicans, while some Democrats opposed the rate reductions for S corporations.
Rep. Brent Barton, D-Clackamas, questioned the legislature’s decision to cut taxes while reducing pension benefits for state workers.
“There is nothing grand about it, and it’s certainly not a bargain,” he said.
The tax bill failed to garner enough “ayes” to pass during an initial vote in the House, but after negotiations among representatives, it passed 36-19. The Senate’s vote on the bill proceeded more quickly, with the bill passing 18-10.
A component of the package that reduced the rate of “cost-of-living” adjustments for retired state workers was also controversial, but only required a simple majority to pass.
It was approved 31-24 in the House and 22-7 in the Senate.
Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said he would “hold (his) nose” and vote for the bill because he didn’t want to kill the cow that gives the milk, referring to the Public Employee Retirement System.
The bill reduced the system’s unfunded liabilities by $1.9 billion on top of a previous $2.6 billion cut passed by the legislature earlier in 2013.
The combined effect will decrease PERS unfunded liabilities from about $8.8 billion to $4.3 billion.
“I hate this bill but sometimes we have to do things we don’t like,” Esquivel said.