Trade pacts may undermine state laws

Posted Dec. 02, 2008, at 7:20 p.m.

A mother in the grocery store wants to be sure that the formula she is feeding her infant is safe. A father buying a toy wants to know if it contains lead paint, which would pose major health risks to his child. Recent problems with unsafe imports and toxins in everyday products have put everyone on alert, and state legislatures across the country, including Maine, have responded with much-needed laws to regulate toxic products.

However, new policies to keep children safe could be found illegal under foreign trade policy. Treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization, or WTO, contain investor rights and other provisions that allow foreign companies to challenge state laws, such as those enacted to protect the health and safety of our communities.

It’s hard to imagine, but it is a real concern that a law passed here in Maine could be challenged by a foreign company claiming the law limits its right to future profits. Such a case wouldn’t be argued here in Maine, or even in the U.S. It would be heard and decided by a tribunal in another country.

It’s not just laws about toxic toys or food that are vulnerable. New initiatives to combat global warming and protect the environment are among the many types of legislation that also could be considered “barriers to trade” under these free-trade agreement provisions.

Most of the discussion about the re-negotiation of trade agreements such as NAFTA has focused on the enormous loss of jobs that states like Maine have seen in recent years due to outsourcing. As significant and devastating as that has been, these trade agreements and their impacts are more far-reaching than most people realize. Of great concern are the hundreds of pages of investor rights that supersede the right of local and state governments to legislate for the common good.

While Maine has yet to have any of our public health or environmental laws challenged, several states have. A California law banning the harmful additive MTBE from gasoline was challenged by a Canadian company. Recently, legislators in Maryland and Vermont received letters from the People’s Republic of China regarding pending legislation in their states. The letters warned that China would issue a challenge if these policies passed. In Maryland the legislation in question would ban lead from children’s products. In Vermont, state Sen. Ginny Lyon’s legislation pertained to the safe disposal of electronic devices.

The nonpartisan Citizen Trade Policy Commission, or CTPC, of the Maine Legislature was established in 2003 and charged with the task of analyzing the impact of free-trade policies on the people of Maine. The membership is composed of legislators and representatives of various resident constituencies such as small business, farmers, labor, and environmental and human rights organizations. We hold two public hearings a year at which residents may testify on the subject of free trade, and we have heard testimony over the years on dozens of compelling topics within this subject. We are eager to learn through these hearings how trade is affecting people’s lives in Maine, both positively and negatively.

Maine has been a national leader in articulating ways to make international trade fair for everyone involved. The CTPC makes recommendations to the United States trade representative, the Maine congressional delegation, and the governor on how we can proactively try to remedy some of the failures of the current trade model. We also are working in conjunction with similar state trade commissions regionally, including New Hampshire and Vermont, to have a greater impact and share information.

The next hearing of the Citizen Trade Policy Commission will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, in the Libra Electra Lecture Hall of Husson University in Bangor. We encourage anyone affected by free-trade policies, positively or negatively, to come and testify. Anyone looking to learn more is welcome to attend and listen to the testimony.

Although trade policies are decided at a federal level, their impact on our state is great. Come and be a part of the process as we bring more voices of the public to the discourse on how we will shape future trade policy.

Sen. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston and Rep. John Patrick of Rumford are co-chairs of the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission.

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