PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislators spent months trying to agree on a grand bargain in which Republicans would consent to higher taxes and Democrats would OK cuts in retirement benefits for government employees.
Party leaders finally accepted the budget compromise Wednesday, but not without a deal to also include a bill prohibiting local governments from regulating genetically modified crops. While sweetening the bargain for tax-averse Republicans, the addition soured the bargain for environmentalists and some Democrats.
George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, called the late inclusion "outrageous," and said the group is alerting its members to contact legislators before the Sept. 30 special session.
"Unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me because we're talking about powerful chemical companies and out-of-state interests," he said.
The agriculture industry is an important constituency for the GOP and spends thousands on legislative races, mostly for Republican candidates. Many in rural communities have been spooked by a growing push from environmentalists to enact steeper restrictions on genetically modified crops.
A measure to ban such crops in Jackson County in Southern Oregon has qualified for the ballot in 2014. An initiative to ban genetically modified crops in Lane County was rejected in July as too broad. A similar measure in Benton County failed to make the ballot on similar grounds.
The state Senate voted earlier this year to prohibit local governments from regulating genetically modified crops, but the House ignored the measure, which was then known as Senate Bill 633. The agreement between Kitzhaber and legislative leaders would allow it to go forward, but Jackson County could keep its regulations if voters approve them.
Katie Fast of the Oregon Farm Bureau said Senate Bill 633 is important to growers, and she was "pleasantly surprised" to learn it was included in the grand bargain. Rather than a patchwork of county ordinances, rules regarding genetically modified crops should be enacted at the state or federal level, she said.
"It creates a lot of barriers for growers when they can't manage their farm holistically because they have different regulations in different counties," she said. "You can have a field that crosses two counties."
Though the governor was elated by Wednesday's compromise, legislative leaders cautioned they must determine whether they will have the votes at the special session. Though Democrats in left-leaning districts would love to have more tax money for education, a vote for Senate Bill 633 would anger their environmentally conscious constituents.
State Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, said his email inbox was "overflowing" Thursday with messages from people unhappy about the late twist.
"I'm deeply disappointed that Senate Bill 633 was included in the mix of bills, and my first step is to see if there's a way we can stop that bill from moving forward," he said.