BRATTLEBORO -- For state Rep. Mike Hebert, the debate over Vermont's proposed GMO-labeling law came down to money -- and its possible influence.
Though the Vernon Republican last year supported a House-approved labeling bill for genetically modified food, and though he believes in the labeling concept, Hebert said he ultimately could not support the modified legislation that now is on its way to Gov. Peter Shumlin.
On a final roll-call vote Wednesday, Hebert was the lone local representative voting against the bill. That's because it included creation of a $1.5 million fund to defend against potential lawsuits, and Hebert doesn't like the idea of the fund being partially supported by donations from labeling supporters.
"I think it cheapened the process," Hebert said. "If you look at campaign finance reform, we're trying to get money out of politics."
The long, winding road for the state's GMO-labeling advocates appears to be ending, as Shumlin has pledged to sign a bill that will make Vermont the first state to require such warnings.
The House passed a labeling bill in the 2013 legislative session. The Senate took up the matter this month and approved an amended version that, over the past week, quickly won concurrence in the House.
The roll call on Wednesday was 114-30, with Windham County's representatives voting 11-1 in favor of the bill. Supporters included Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane and a Judiciary Committee member who downplayed the impact of a potential labeling-related lawsuit from the food and/or biotech industries.
The financial impact of such a lawsuit has been estimated at $8 million.
"If we decline to act from fear of being sued and possibly losing, we put ourselves at the mercy of every powerful interest which engages in threats," Marek said. "To do so would be to abdicate our most fundamental role as legislators. To do so, in a context where our worst potential loss is $8 million while our attorney general recovers $40 million in other litigation annually, simply would be financially ludicrous."
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, was another supporter.
"I vote ‘yes' to carry the voice of my constituents to the Statehouse," Mrowicki said in comments recorded in the official House journal. "Plain and simple, Vermonters want and deserve to know what is in their food. And once again, little old Vermont is leading the nation."
Opponents, however, wonder about the direction in which Vermont may be leading the nation. One representative declared that "this label may cost millions," while another decried "Vermont's sticking its neck out, again, all alone."
Rep. Tim Goodwin, an independent representing the Windham-Bennington-Windsor District, voted in favor of the bill -- but not without expressing similar reservations. Goodwin noted that the bill contains no "trigger" that would enact Vermont's labeling law only if other states did the same.
"Those I listened to at hearings, who voiced an opinion that Vermont should go it alone without a trigger with a promise that they would stand behind us, will now have the opportunity to prove their credibility, as the (legal defense) fund is set up to take contributions as well as monies from suits the attorney general's office prevails on in other quarters," Goodwin said.
"The absence of a trigger means that Vermont's law is not dependent on the legislation of any other state to take effect on July 1, 2016," Goodwin added. "I voted ‘yes' on the bill based on input from constituents. It is the correct vote in literal terms of representation. I hope time proves it to be the correct vote in terms of the physical, mental, and financial welfare of Vermonters."
Hebert said he was concerned that triggers, which were part of last year's House GMO bill, disappeared by the time the legislation returned to the House.
"That was a problem, but not insurmountable to me," he said. "I still believe people have a right to know what's in their food."
Establishment of a legal fund, though, was insurmountable for Hebert. He worries that it "sets a bad precedent" by implying that Vermonters can "buy" a piece of controversial legislation by contributing to its future litigation costs.
"If we're going to make the fight and take on a lawsuit, then that's what we should do," Hebert said.
In other legislative business related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- The House on Thursday approved a revamped marijuana bill that makes changes including lifting a cap on the number of Vermont residents who can receive prescribed marijuana. The House declined, however, to concur with a Senate move to increase the number of state-approved marijuana dispensaries from four to six.
"We felt (that) this law hasn't even been in effect for a year, and we didn't want to rush into adding more dispensaries with so little data to support expansion at this time," said Mrowicki, a member of the House Human Services Committee.
Mrowicki noted, however, that the House added a provision calling for the study of post-traumatic stress disorder and the possibility of treating it with marijuana.
"While we heard from many people who suggest it would provide relief, we haven't seen any research or didn't find any medical providers who could recommend that this would be helpful," Mrowicki said. "We do recognize how prevalent PTSD is, especially among veterans returning from war zones, so we want to get some background research for any possible future action."
Hebert cast both affirmative and negative votes during the marijuana-bill debate, but he said those votes did not conflict. The ‘yes' vote, Hebert said, was to support a successful amendment calling for an in-depth study of the ramifications of legalizing marijuana.
Hebert believes that, in coming sessions, there will be a push to legalize pot in Vermont. If that happens, he said, "I want to have all of the information that we could possibly have to make the best decision we could possibly make."
Hebert is particularly interested in the effects of regulating and taxing marijuana in Colorado. "They've gotten a lot of revenue out of it, but it's also created a lot of problems," he said.
While supporting the study, Hebert opposed any expansion of the state's marijuana program and so voted against the final bill.
"Why are we expanding the program when we haven't had a chance to see what we're doing so far?" he asked.
-- Several local legislators expressed concern about a bill that would consolidate educational governance in Vermont by decreasing the number of school boards and increasing district sizes. While supporters argue that the bill is a much-needed step toward a more-modern, more-efficient educational system, detractors worry that the Legislature is trying to take away local control.
The controversial measure, H.883, has been undergoing revision in the House and faces an uncertain future, though some have continued to push for its passage.
Mrowicki said the legislation "doesn't address the biggest issues Vermonters see challenging our educational system -- rising education taxes and helping bridge the performance gap of those students in the lower-income demographic."
"We have yet to be shown the research that centralizing power and taking away local control has worked in other places or can work here," Mrowicki said, adding that a longer, more-deliberative process is needed before voting on such a drastic change.
"We are especially concerned that people in the southern part of the state have not had an opportunity to weigh in on these huge changes and would like to see a listening tour around the state," he said.
Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith predicted that the education measure is going nowhere in a session that is scheduled to end May 9.
"I think the education bill is unlikely to become law this year, for the obvious reason that it still hasn't come over from the House," said Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat.
-- Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee is "working on two bills that, taken together, will build on the Legislature's initiatives to ‘encourage, reward and protect' private sector risk-taking that leads to living-wage job growth and increased state revenues."
One bill "focuses on strategic incentives that will help unleash Vermont's economic potential," while the other focuses on workforce development, Stuart said.
She called S.220, titled "an act relating to furthering economic development" and currently being considered in the House, "a forward-thinking bill that provides many innovative ideas and provisions that will augment economic development in Vermont."
The bill includes a one-stop-shop web portal, a Vermont Enterprise Fund and a Vermont Entrepreneurial Lending Program.
-- Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, hailed a bill (S.70) that allows unpasteurized milk to be sold at farmers markets "under strict requirements regulated by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets."
The measure on Friday passed the House, which agreed to an earlier Senate amendment.
"This can only be sold to regular customers who already come to a farm to purchase raw milk. There are other requirements that guarantee the safety of the milk while allowing the expansion of marketing options for farmers," Burke said. "This is in line with state policy to support and grow our agricultural sector."
Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.