Monsanto, Tobacco Companies Big Winners in Special Legislative Session
OPINION – October 14, 2013 -- The state legislature’s special session is over, and the “Grand Bargain” has been struck. In terms of personal interest in the embattled package, I had more than a dog in this fight. I had an entire kennel.
I taught high school social studies right out of college and was a member of the teachers’ union. I fought against the tobacco industry with the American Cancer Society and against Monsanto and the biotech industry with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. And my wife is a retired teacher and administrator for special needs kids and receives a PERS pension.
So yes, you could say I’m very invested. Here’s my take on the results.
Legislators passed SB 863, which pre-empts counties and cities from regulating GMO and other crops. Except for Jackson County, which has an initiative on the May 2014 ballot to ban GMO crops, other local efforts are shut out. There were attempts by Lane and Benton Counties to vote for similar GMO bans, but the last-minute insertion of an emergency clause in the bill cut those off at the knees.
Recognizing the firestorm the pre-emption bill had started, Governor Kitzhaber directed the Oregon Department of Agriculture to map all GMO crops grown in the state, presumably to avoid contamination incidents on non-GMO crops.
That would be nice, but don’t hold your breath. The exact locations of regulated (experimental) GMO crops are confidential and ODA can’t require the biotech firms or the USDA to reveal them. The odds of them working out an agreement, giving this information to Oregon are about as good as President Obama and John Boehner celebrating Thanksgiving together this year.
Kitzhaber is also convening a task force to address the difficult issues GMO’s create, including contamination, liability and labeling, in preparation for the 2015 Legislature. It’s too bad he didn’t mention health risks, because they’re verVy real.
The task force is little solace to organic and conventional non-GMO farmers who continue to have their crops contaminated and markets threatened by GMO pollen drift right now. There were numerous bills that would give the state authority to more strictly regulate GMO’s in the regular session this year. Everyone was opposed by the biotech firms and Oregonians for Food and Shelter and the Farm Bureau, who carry their water in the Legislature. They’ll be just as opposed to meaningful statewide GMO regulation as they were to county-wide regulation.
Then there are the tobacco companies, who wrote the book on pre-emption. Victor Crawford, former Tobacco Institute lobbyist extraordinaire, proclaimed the tobacco companies’ “first priority has always been to pre-empt the field, preferably to put it all on the federal levels, but if they can’t do that, at least on the state level because the health advocates can’t compete with me on a state level.” Monsanto and Philip Morris are not at all strange bedfellows.
In the special session, the issue was taxes. The cigarette tax goes up 13 cents per pack in 2014, then adds a penny in 2016 and 2018. This may appear to be a defeat for Big Tobacco, which vigorously opposes tax increases on their products. But look closer.
The national average for state taxes is $1.53 per pack. The increases would only bring Oregon to $1.33, ranking us 28th in the country. Compare that with states with relatively well-funded schools, such as Massachusetts at $3.51 per pack, Connecticut at $3.40, Maryland at $2.00 and Washington State at $3.02. The tobacco companies got off with a pittance and will now be able to use this to argue against a significant increase of $1.00 per pack or more.
Finally, I’m no expert on tax policy. But Chuck Sheketoff of the Oregon Center for Public Policy and Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon are. Sheketoff noted the “fiscal irresponsibility” of the package that “provides a windfall for some of Oregon’s wealthiest.” Wiser highlighted the unfairness of business owners’ tax rates being lower than their employees’.
Bottom line: Schools and mental health get increased funding. I’m all for that.
But the big winners are many of our wealthier citizens, the tobacco companies and corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta. The big losers were non-GMO farmers, consumers and democracy itself.
Rick North is the former executive vice president of the Oregon American Cancer Society and former project director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Campaign for Safe Food. He retired two years ago to address undue corporate influence on our elections, government and most aspects of our lives.