Commission looks at trade agreement impact on state law

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(Host) A new state commission is looking at the impact of international trade agreements on state law.

The panel wants to know whether trade deals like NAFTA can pre-empt local regulations and weaken state sovereignty.

With Congress scheduled to consider trade legislation next year, the commission hopes to add a Vermont voice to the debate.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Trade deals are negotiated in capitals far from Montpelier. But their impacts can be felt close to home.

For example, Vermont has joined with the state of Illinois to help people buy medicines in Canada. Drug prices are cheaper there and consumers can save by taking advantage of the cross-border shopping.

It sounds like unfettered commerce. But the drug importation program could violate international trade agreements. Robin Lunge, a staff member of the legislative council, explained.

(Lunge) “Some of the trade agreements have provisions which restrict or are targeted towards restricting access to that kind of importation of drugs by citizens.”

(Dillon) Other trade deals can dictate how states use public money to buy goods or services. A state purchasing requirement to “buy American” or “buy Vermont” products could be banned because it would interfere with free trade.

Trade agreements can pre-empt federal or state environmental laws as well. A Canadian mining company has claimed that the federal government and the state of California violated the North American Free Trade Agreement by blocking a proposed gold mine.

These and other cases prompted the legislature last year to establish a Commission on International Trade and State Sovereignty. Chittenden Senator Ginny Lyons is co-chair.

(Lyons) “This is an issue that crosses over all other issues in the state, so the environment, health and welfare, agriculture, commerce and economic development. And we’ve been charged to act more or less as the oversight for those related issues in free trade agreements.”

(Dillon) In recent years, trade deals have been approved under “fast track” authority granted by Congress. Under fast track, states have no input. And Congress can only vote up or down. It cannot amend the trade deals.

Fast Track expires next July and Lyons says Vermont has an opportunity to be part of the debate.

(Lyons) “And so we can work through our congressional delegation to look at alternatives so that when treaties are reviewed, free trade agreements are reviewed in the Congress, there may be an opportunity for states to give input. That would be refreshing.”

(Dillon) The state commission includes representatives of business and organized labor. The commission plans to hold public hearings this winter.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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