Monday March 4, 2013

There are definite signs at the State House that we are getting close to Town Meeting week. The energy level is high, committees are working hard to wrap things up, and the Doyle Polls are on our desks.

When we return to the State House, "crossover" will be looming on Friday of that week. "Crossover" is the day by which all House bills must be out of their policy committees and into the House Ways and Means or Appropriations Committees. The same is true for the Senate bills only their version of Ways and Means is Senate Finance. We do have the option of asking for an exemption to the crossover deadline, which I will do for a couple of bills.

In the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (yes, we have a new name!) we have been working hard to finish testimony on H.112, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering (GE). We have been able to establish several state interests other than public curiosity for the need to label such food. They include public health and food safety, environmental impacts, consumer confusion and deception, promoting economic development, and protecting religious and cultural practice.

We are being very careful as we develop this bill because there is a strong possibility we will be sued by the biotech companies, which don't want their products labeled. One might ask why we would proceed given that possibility. Last year, an estimated 400 Vermonters travelled to the State House on a weekday night for a hearing on the subject of labeling - over 100 testified and not one opposed the idea. In fact, all strongly supported it. Also, over 90 percent of Vermonters responding to a poll conducted by the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont said they wanted foods produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require the labeling of genetically engineered products, it's our responsibility to require it. It is clear that this is something that should be done on a federal level but it is equally clear that that is not going to be done any time soon.

Some advocates would prefer that the effective date for this legislation be upon passage or the typical July 1. We heard testimony from Vermont's specialty food sector, which we highly value as part of the local foods movement. Many indicated that they would need some transition time to change their packaging. Others will potentially reformulate in order to eliminate GE in their products as Ben and Jerry's and Lake Champlain Chocolates are doing.

Sourcing non-GE materials can be a bit of a challenge, but the expectation is that it will not cost significantly more. Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry's testified that they plan to be non-GE by the end of 2013 and don't anticipate any price increase as a result of the change. We also heard from the Attorney General's office that having more states involved would help in court with a dormant commerce clause challenge. For these and other reasons, our committee decided on an effective date of either July 1, 2015 or 18 months after two other states pass similar language, whichever comes first.

In terms of litigation, the effective date is not really important. Last year, an attorney representing the biotech industry said that regardless of the effective date, they would start the process because of what they would regard as an "imminent threat." The question is do we live in fear of what might happen in the courts or do we do what a vast majority of Vermonters want us to do? We chose to do what Vermonters have indicated they want and passed the bill. The vote was 8-3-0 and it will move on to the Judiciary Committee. I will be requesting a crossover exemption for this bill.

I look forward to visiting all of our towns for Town Meeting. On Saturday, I, along with my district-mate, Matt Trieber, will attend the Westminster meeting. The Rockingham meeting is Monday night and on Tuesday we'll make the rounds starting in Brookline, then on to Athens, Grafton, and Windham. After lunch, we head back to Rockingham to greet people in front of the polls.

It is a great pleasure, even when we are occasionally put on the "hot seat," to visit with people as they participate in this purest form of democracy. This year in Grafton, we will miss Bea Fisher - things will certainly not be the same without her.

One year, the meetings in Grafton and Windham got done so quickly, we didn't make it before they adjourned! Their efficiency was to be commended but it was disappointing because I love getting the chance to visit with people, hearing their news, and listening to their concerns and questions. I wish you all a productive, civil, and enjoyable Town Meeting!

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.