BRATTLEBORO -- Standing outside Brattleboro Food Co-op during a July rally supporting labels on genetically modified foods, Sabine Rhyne declared that people "should be able to know what they buy."
Over the past week, Rhyne and other GMO-labeling proponents had cause to celebrate as lawmakers pushed Vermont much closer to becoming the first state to require such warnings.
Rhyne, the co-op's shareholder and community relations manager, believes the no-doubt margins of pro-labeling votes in the state Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday were evidence that grass-roots lobbying had an impact.
"From everything that we hear, it was because they've heard nothing but requests from constituents (who support) this bill," Rhyne said.
The state House last year approved a GMO-labeling bill; influential backers of the House bill included Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee. But the measure went no further before the 2013 legislative session ended.
That left the GMO focus on the Senate for 2014, and senators on Tuesday delivered a 26-2 affirmation of mandatory labeling by July 1, 2016, in a preliminary vote. The following day, the final roll call was 28-2 in favor as the bill, H.112, passed the Senate.
There are differences between the House and Senate versions, and those differences must be resolved before the legislation can go to Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Partridge said she was "pleased" by the Senate vote, which made national headlines.
"My committee, House Agriculture and Forest Products, has already started our review of the changes the Senate made to see what action we want to take," Partridge said. "Our choices are to concur, concur with proposals of amendment or ask for a committee of conference."
The push toward GMO labeling has been slowed by concerns about possible legal challenges from the food and biotech industries. There have been arguments from those quarters that such labeling is unfair and is not based on established science.
But Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney Democrat, said Vermont's proposed regulation is a "very simple concept" that can withstand a court challenge.
"It makes no determination about whether GMOs are good or bad but simply says that people have the right to know if their food is processed using them," White said. "I sit on the Judiciary Committee, and our main interest was whether or not it could be defended. We are confident that it can be defended the way we wrote it. That doesn't mean there won't be a suit, but the legal advice we got from our legislative lawyers and from the Vermont Law School was that it was defensible."
White noted that she has been a longtime activist on the GMO front.
"This is an issue I have been working on for the 12 years I've been here -- not the food-labeling issue, but other GMO-related issues -- liability and seeds mainly," she said. "Both passed the Senate but were held up -- hung conference committee for one, and resistance from the House on the other. So I am glad this one has passed."
Also grateful and hopeful are Brattleboro Co-op administrators, who are looking forward to a state-mandated labeling system. The store already has joined a "Non-GMO Project" that provides a list of foods that are free of genetically-modified ingredients, but Rhyne said that system is somewhat labor-intensive.
"We label and tag the store. We're just actually in the process of renewing that information," Rhyne said.
As much as she welcomes a Vermont GMO law, however, Rhyne also believes the issue eventually must be taken up by Congress.
"I'm really proud of Vermont for leading the way," she said. "But honestly, it has to happen across the country for it to be really successful."
In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said his House Human Services Committee has approved a bill that updates the state's medical-marijuana dispensary law. The committee will present the bill to the full House next week.
"Marijuana for symptom relief is allowed under current law by prescription, and we have heard from many individuals who have been helped where other drugs did not," Mrowicki said.
For example, a "veteran wounded in the Middle East still has a bullet in his back that is inoperable. He claims marijuana helps his pain like nothing else has but doesn't get him high," Mrowicki said. "We also heard some poignant stories from parents of children experiencing grand mal seizures who would like to try a (marijuana) strain being grown in Colorado that has shown great efficacy in reducing both seizures and the attendant brain damage than can occur with ongoing seizures."
Federal law prohibits bringing that strain of marijuana to Vermont, Mrowicki said. He added that, "since we have no jurisdiction in federal law, we are trying to remove the barriers for similar strains to be grown in Vermont."
Mrowicki also said his committee had voted to request a study of the effect of medical marijuana on post-traumatic stress disorder.
"There is anecdotal testimony that some people (with PTSD) are helped, but medical providers are cautioning that it could be more harmful with long-term (marijuana) use," Mrowicki said. "There is no clear research right now, so a study will be done to see what the science says about all PTSD treatments before expanding use of medical marijuana."
-- Rep. Tim Goodwin, an independent representing the Windham-Bennington-Windsor House District, expressed surprise that a bill regarding the privatization of public schools had been "ordered to lie" -- a relatively rare procedural move that sets legislation aside for an indefinite period.
On Wednesday, "the House brought up S.91, the first section of which provided a moratorium on privatization of public schools, the second section of which provided for a study by the secretary of education. An item of the study was the question of the constitutionality of the state Education Department prohibiting privatization," Goodwin said.
"I questioned from the floor whether, given the question in the study, the vote we were taking up might not be constitutional. The question was pretty much swept aside."
Goodwin said Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton and the House minority leader, proposed deleting the privatization moratorium. Subsequently, a majority of the House voted that the bill should be "ordered to lie" with no vote on Milton's amendment.
"I have been told by a person much my senior in the House that, in six years, she has not seen a bill ordered to lie in the House," Goodwin said.
-- Not all of the state legislators' time is taken up by such parliamentary heavy lifting. Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said she appreciated a Wednesday meeting in Montpelier with representatives of the Arts Council of Windham County, Brattleboro Music Center and Vermont Arts Council.
The group talked "specifically about the plan of the Music Center to renovate the C.F. Church building on Flat Street and to build a state-of-the-art concert hall," Burke said.
Lawmakers also learned about the economic impact of the arts.
"We heard that the amount of money that goes to the state from arts venues and enterprises in (Windham) County is almost the same as the appropriation that the Legislature gives to the state Arts Council," Burke said. "Also, an Americans for the Arts Survey found that the nonprofit arts sector generates over $11 million in economic activity in the town of Brattleboro."
"These are important numbers to keep in mind as we discuss economic development in Windham County and ways in which we can attract tourists as well as young people to the area," Burke added. "There are also jobs to be grown through support of the arts sector."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.