SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission met in the Skowhegan Community Center on Wednesday evening to talk about how the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement could affect Maine businesses.
Commission chairwoman state Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, asked for input from the business owners in the audience, but no one spoke.
In fact, only a few seats were filled in the room, with most of them occupied by politicians.
“It’s too bad there wasn’t a lot of people testifying,” said Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, after the meeting. “We have had other hearings where there was a lot of public attention to it.”
As a member of the Intergovernmental Policy Advisory Committee, Treat showed the commission a presentation on what the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement could mean for Maine.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a free trade agreement being negotiated among North America, South America, Asia and Australia.
Maine exported shipments of merchandise totaling $3.2 billion in 2010, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. Most of the exports were computer and electronic products, paper products and fish and other marine products.
Treat said the TPP can open doors for Maine businesses, but she said she has reason to worry if it is passed.
“The tariff issue has been a big one [for businesses to talk about] because it affects so many jobs here in Maine,” said Treat.
Last month, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk visited a New Balance factory in Norridgewock to see how shoes were made in Maine. New Balance employs about 800 people among three factories in the state, including Skowhegan and Norway.
Tariffs on shoes imported into the United States from other countries help keep prices competitive, said Treat. Cheap prices on products from some foreign countries often come from the result of child labor, low wages and long hours, she said.
“That’s what we’re paying for when we buy shoes,” said Treat. “Every time they manufacture shoes in another country with those kinds of conditions, yeah, we’re getting a cheaper shoe, but it’s at the cost of that.”
An agreement such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership also could create trouble in regard to state laws, she said.
“A lot of times these trade agreements can be used by companies in other countries to challenge our rules and regulations, whether it’s environmental protection, youth smoking regulations and things like that,” Treat said.
She said companies can work outside the court system and use a trade agreement to go to arbitration panels to sue states or municipalities for laws that harm their business.
“It’s a sovereignty issue,” said Treat. “They could sue under a trade agreement and essentially overturn those regulations duly enacted by Congress or state legislature.”
Treat encouraged people to get involved by reading information regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and to contact state representatives to Congress and the president. The Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission regularly writes letters to other countries and to legislators.