Dems want state out of trade deal
MONTPELIER — Organized labor and leading Democrats are pressuring the governor to follow the lead of other governors and back away from his support for a pair of international free trade agreements, fearing the deals could supersede state law.
Gov. James Douglas' spokesman says he shares the concerns and is taking a tough look at whether the state could be harmed by including its markets in the agreements.
A House committee is considering two bills that would revoke the administration's authority to sign on in support of the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the South African Customs Union.
And the top two Democrats in the Legislature — House Speaker Gaye Symington and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, asked Gov. James Douglas to rescind an October 2003 letter he signed with the U.S. Trade Representative committing Vermont to the two deals.
"We are very concerned about the impact these agreements will have on Vermont," Symington and Welch wrote. "These agreements have already subjected states to international lawsuits over policies they have set whether for environmental protection, business promotion or employment standards."
The administration is considering whether it should move forward, too. The governor signed a nonbinding letter in October 2003 that offered to include Vermont markets in the pending trade deals, but the administration is now wondering whether it should commit the state to that approach.
"In light of events in other states relating to international trade agreements and other issues, we are looking very closely at CAFTA and Vermont's relationship in any negotiations conducted by the USTR," said Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs. "The governor is concerned that some of these agreements are generating significant problems for other states and he wants to be sure we're doing everything to protect Vermont's economy and Vermonters' jobs."
California has become a leading example for opponents of the free trade deals. It enacted a law banning the gasoline additive MTBE and then was sued in an international court by a Canadian company that argued it violated the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Labor groups and others warn that Vermont, which passed a similar law, could end up in the same situation. And it also could be prevented from requiring state institutions to purchase Vermont products, they said.
"All purchases made by the state are going to be bound by CAFTA," said Dan Brush, president of the Vermont State Labor Council AFL-CIO.
"We will not be able to participate in Buy Vermont First," he said.
Governors in some states have chosen to back out of their support for CAFTA and other trade agreements. That's what happened in Maine and Pennsylvania, according to Welch and Symington, and they urged Douglas to follow suit.
The House Government Operations Committee examined how former Gov. Howard Dean qualified his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s. He said the state would participate in NAFTA only if it did not supersede state laws.
Gibbs said the letter signed Douglas signed a year and a half ago on CAFTA was similar to what Dean did in 1993 on NAFTA and has not committed the state to any particular course.
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