In Oregon, local government powers could go on trial this Monday

September 25, 2013

A combine harvests wheat along the Oregon-Washington border. (Jeff Horner/AP)

The powers of local governments could be on trial when Oregon’s legislature meets for a special session this Monday.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) this week called the special session to deal with a set of budget, pension and tax issues — a so-called “grand bargain” that includes things like spending more on schools, expanding tax credits for working families and boosting the state’s pension fund. But, alongside all that, he also wants to revive a failed bill that would take some regulatory power away from Oregon’s counties.

The bill in question — SB633 — stalled in the state House after passing the Senate and concerns the ability of local governments to regulate genetically modified crops. In announcing the special session, Kitzhaber urged consideration of a policy to preempt local GMO bans and instead convene a working group to develop a state policy.

Lawmakers and Kitzhaber have been accused of serving special interests in reviving the measure, and a coalition of environmental, farm and food groups are asking that he withdraw it from the special session. Earlier this year, a patch of Monsanto’s unapproved genetically modified wheat mysteriously appeared in Oregon, pushing GMOs into the spotlight there as the bill was being considered.

But, in its essence, the fight is a philosophical one about the powers of local governments.

“[The proposal] strips away the rights of local communities to make locally appropriate decisions about food and agriculture and is a direct affront to Oregon’s respected organic and natural food trade which is a significant economic contributor in this state,” a coalition of advocacy groups wrote in a Tuesday letter to Kitzhaber.

The movement to ban GMO crops locally is a borrowed strategy from the nationwide local-level fight against fracking for natural gas, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in July. But, tactics aside, Monday’s special session could have substantial implications for the powers of local governments within the state.

(NOTE: For clarity, references to the “rights” of local governments were changed to “powers”.)

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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