State commisssion adds local voice to free trade debate

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(Host) A state commission wants to hear from Vermonters about the opportunities – and potential perils – posed by free trade agreements.

One concern is that international trade tribunals could override Vermont laws that protect agriculture and the environment.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Vermont Commission on International Trade wants to add a local voice to the trade debate.

Senator Ginny Lyons chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee and co-chairs the trade commission. She says the panel will examine whether trade deals could undercut Vermont law.

(Lyons) "It’s about preserving local autonomy, but it’s also being certain that foreign investors are not granted greater rights than Vermont investors. We want to be sure that Vermont companies benefit from these trade agreements and are not hurt in any way."

(Dillon) Lyons says trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement – or NAFTA – have the potential to pre-empt federal or state environment laws.

A Canadian mining company, for example, has charged that the state of California violated the free trade pact by blocking a proposed gold mine.

The fear is that Vermont’s environmental regulation – such as the state’s Act 250 land use law – could be open to challenge by a free trade tribunal.

Lyons says Vermont consumers could also be affected. For example, the state’s efforts to negotiate favorable prices with drug companies could be threatened by some trade agreements.

(Lyons) "One of the concerns that we have is around the preferred drug list for our states programs. If another country, or another business from outside the country, were to claim that our preferred drug list is not appropriate, that could be called into question."

(Dillon) St. Albans Representative Kathy Keenan also co-chairs the trade commission. She wants to make sure that the Vermont law is protected, and that local businesses get the full benefit of free trade.

(Keenan) "As far as the business piece is concerned, I would like to find out what we could do to help them export more goods, and increase their bottom line."

(Dillon) The commission learned this spring that Vermont companies that rely on exports have lost jobs.

According to the state Department of Labor, between 2000 and 2005, employment at these companies shrank about 20 percent, or about 9,000 positions.

But Senator Lyons says there are clear benefits from free trade for some companies.

(Lyons) "We want to make sure that those continue. We also know that free trade can have a really deleterious effect on agriculture, on health care, on the environment, and on business competition. So we want to make sure that that while we’re improving trade options, we’re also protecting our state sovereignty."

(Dillon) The commission will go on the road later this month to hear from Vermonters. The first hearing will examine free trade and business competitiveness. Other hearings will examine trade and agriculture, health care and the environment.

Lyons expects that the trade commission will eventually report to the state’s congressional delegation.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.


Future meetings of the Commission on International Trade and State Sovereignty:

October 30, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Public Hearing on International Trade and Vermont Business Competitiveness, DoubleTree Hotel, 1117 Williston Rd., South Burlington

November 13, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Public Hearing on International Trade and Vermont ‘s Environment, Hotel Coolidge, 39 South Main St., White River Junction

November 27, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Public Hearing on International Trade and Vermont Health Care, Rutland Regional Medical Center, CVPS/Leahy Conference Room, 160 Allen St., Rutland

December 13, 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., Public Hearing on The Effects of International Free Trade Agreements on Vermont Agriculture, The Abbey Restaurant, 6212 Vt. Route 105, Enosburg Falls


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