BRATTLEBORO -- The threat of a costly, protracted lawsuit has hung over the Vermont's legislature's genetically modified foods debate.
But that didn't stop a majority of state House members -- and all but one local representative -- from voting on Friday in favor of a measure that would require labeling of many foods that contain genetically modified organisms.
Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane, declared that the legislature should not be "held hostage" by the possibility of lawsuits from the food industry if Vermont becomes the first state to require so-called GMO labeling.
"As usual, whenever we are willing to tackle an issue of real importance, the threat of litigation and its costs is being raised to persuade us to simply stand aside and do nothing," Marek said.
As state lawmakers moved closer to winding up their 2013 session, many uncertainties remained. That was true even of the upcoming legislative schedule, though lawmakers on Friday evening said they expected the session to continue into Monday and Tuesday.
But the GMO-labeling issue was set, at least for this year. The House gave the GMO bill a preliminary nod Thursday on a 107-38 vote, then returned with a 99-42 affirmation on Friday.
It was too late in the session for Senate consideration, so the other legislative body will have to take up the matter when the next session begins in January.
"I'm sure there will be some modifications there, and we'll have to consider those," Marek said. "It's the legislative process."
Still, backers of mandatory GMO labeling saw the House vote as a victory.
"I voted for this because, plain and simple, Vermonters are asking for and deserve the right to know what is in their food," said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.
Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, said he heard from more people on the GMO issue than on any other issue this session. And there was strong support for a labeling law, he said.
"We found that people were really, really involved on this particular issue," Trieber said.
Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, acknowledged having some concerns about the bill. And he believes the law would be much more effective if taken up by Congress.
However, like Trieber, Hebert was swayed by public support for GMO labeling.
"It was a difficult decision for me," Hebert said. "But I heard from a lot of constituents who really wanted this passed."
Some warn that Vermont could face a losing legal battle on the GMO issue, pointing to an appeals court ruling against the state's attempt in the 1990s to require labeling of dairy products from cows that had been given a growth hormone called bovine somatotropin.
Barre-based Rep. Thomas Koch said the bill is "unlikely to survive a court challenge to its constitutionality.
"No other state has passed a similar bill; they all seem to be waiting for Vermont to go first and ‘lead the nation,'" Koch said in comments recorded by the official House journal. "What they mean is that they don't want to risk their taxpayers' money -- they want us to risk Vermonters' money. That is a $5 (million) to $10 million dollar risk, and one that I am not willing to take."
But Mrowicki downplayed the possibility of a legal entanglement.
"The naysayers who continue to raise the specter of lawsuits as reason not to move forward on what we believe did not resonate with the majority in the House, just like they didn't resonate with voters back in November," Mrowicki said.
"The same naysayers said Vermont tourism would suffer if we passed civil unions and marriage equality. The reality is, its been a boon for tourism," Mrowicki said. "They said our law to protect the environment from mercury would result in no fluorescent bulbs in Vermont. Not true.
"Fact is, we can't say how a court will decide beforehand," Mrowicki added. "And the threat of a lawsuit is not always reason enough to back away from a fight."
Marek said the bill "supports the fundamental right of Vermonters to make informed choices about what they choose to eat." That sentiment had been shared by administrators of the state's 17 food cooperatives -- including co-ops in Brattleboro and Putney -- who last month banded together to support the legislation.
Windham County's representatives voted 12-0 in favor of GMO labeling in Thursday's preliminary roll call. But during Friday's final tally, Rep. Tim Goodwin voted against the bill.
Goodwin, a Weston-based independent whose district includes the towns of Jamaica, Londonderry and Stratton, on Thursday said he had "voted yes with the sincere hope that this bill will be transformed by amending modification to a bill I can vote for again."
That didn't happen, Goodwin reported on Friday.
"I had wanted to see changes that would have taken the threat of a $5 million to $10 million lawsuit out of it," he said.
There are several exemptions to the labeling law as it was approved in the House. For example, there is no mandatory GMO labeling for "food consisting entirely of or derived entirely from an animal which has not itself been produced with genetic engineering, regardless of whether the animal has been fed or injected with any food or drug produced with genetic engineering."
In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- The House on Tuesday approved a bill that will allow immigrant agricultural workers who are in the U.S. illegally to drive in Vermont. That would happen through issuance of a "driver's privilege" card.
In introducing the bill, Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat, said "immigrant workers face significant challenges because they are currently ineligible to travel independently to purchase basic necessities like food or to access medical care and other services."
On Friday, Burke said passage of the bill in both the House and the Senate was a "big victory." She said the state's public-safety administrators supported the measure "because they felt it was better for people to be identified and to be trained."
Burke added that the debate had legal and moral implications for immigrant farm workers.
"They're keeping our dairy farms alive, but they're not able to move about freely," she said.
The House voted 105-39 to approve the measure. Local representatives voted 11-1 in favor of the bill, with Hebert alone in opposing it.
Hebert said he believes the issue should be tackled by federal lawmakers. And he worries that the bill will increase the number of uninsured drivers on Vermont roads.
"There are some insurance issues," Hebert said. "They would be allowed to get insurance, but what guarantee do we have that they will get insurance?"
Some opponents also had expressed security concerns, but Marek dismissed that argument.
"We have roughly 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of whom are hard-working and actually pay taxes," Marek said after the vote. "The notion that a careful process to issue those few in Vermont with identification cards or driving cards will either affect immigration enforcement or threaten national security by its existence simply exalts fear over reason. Reason prevailed today."
Mrowicki praised Burke, a member of the House Transportation Committee, for "some great work on the floor of the House presenting the bill and answering many questions in the long debate."
He added that a majority of the House "believes those who work hard and provide labor for Vermont agriculture shouldn't be stuck on those same farms because they are afraid to drive without an ID.
"The opposition called these workers terrorists and pawns of drug cartels in Mexico and Guatemala," Mrowicki said. "The majority voted to welcome these hard workers into the U.S. and Vermont. Viva los nueveos immigrante."
Goodwin said he voted yes, "but not without concern for our farmers who are, more than ever, identified as employers of undocumented immigrants."
"If I thought the people this bill is meant to accommodate were a threat, I would not have voted yes," Goodwin added.
-- Campaign-finance reform continues to be a contentious topic. The House on Wednesday voted 96-49 to approve the latest version of the bill, which included a limitation on donations to so-called "super-PACS" -- political-action committees that sink large, independent expenditures into campaigns.
Echoing the GMO-labeling theme, critics said such a provision is setting Vermont up for a lawsuit.
"We don't have a great history when we limit (campaign) spending," Hebert said. "We've lost a couple lawsuits already."
Hebert and Goodwin were the local representatives voting against the campaign bill, with Goodwin also feeling that Vermont is inviting a free-speech lawsuit.
Voting for the bill, Goodwin said, would be akin to "gambling with taxpayer money."
But Mrowicki was among those supporting the measure, saying campaign-finance reform is "long overdue" as spending restrictions have been loosened at the federal level.
"Money is not free speech. It is a means of buying elections, and we do well to take steps to address this," Mrowicki said.
Trieber said he does not believe the bill is unconstitutional.
"This was not to limit speech," Trieber said. "The goal was to create somewhat level playing fields."
-- The Senate approved yet another revision to a controversial bill allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients.
The Senate in February had stripped the measure of any "safeguards" such as requiring patients to a request a lethal prescription three times including once in writing. Instead, the shortened Senate version simply said doctors would not be held liable for writing such prescriptions.
The House this month restored those safeguards. And the Senate on Wednesday voted 17-13 in favor of a compromise that preserved those provisions while also mandating that they expire in 2016.
By Friday evening, the House had not yet acted on that version. Marek predicted that, if the bill becomes law, legislators in some future session will vote to preserve the House safeguards before they expire.
"This certainly represents an odd compromise, but it was the only way to move a bill through the Senate," Marek said. "I'm confident that several years of experience with the stronger House provisions will see the legislature simply keep it and wisely eliminate moving to the (Senate) version."
Mike Faher is the political beat writer for the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.