It once seemed like smooth sailing for The Farmer's Protection Act. S.18, which would hold manufacturers of genetically modified organisms liable for contamination caused by their product, breezed through the Vermont Senate on a 26-to-one vote. Easy passage was expected in the Democratic-controlled House, where 54 representatives have already co-sponsored a version of the bill. But it's now looking as if the measure will never make it out of the House Agriculture Committee.
Since early April, the bill has been bottled up in hearings held by committee chair David Zuckerman -- a Burlington Progressive and an organic farmer who helped initiate the legislation. What gives?
"Because Dave is a good guy, he is having the debate," says Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr.
According to Zuckerman, though, it's being held up by a number of things. "There's six people opposed to the bill and 11 members on the committee. You do the math," Zuckerman says. Representative John Malcolm, a Pawlet Democrat, has joined the committee's five Republicans opposing the measure.
House Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) says she's been working with Kerr and House Speaker Gaye Symington (D-Jericho) to reach a compromise.
If no resolution is reached, anti-GMO advocates may turn up the heat on lawmakers to yank the bill from the Agriculture Committee and send it directly to the House Judiciary Committee, the last step before the House floor. But Symington says that she wants to avoid circumventing the embattled committee.
Over the weekend, Kerr said he would agree to some of the bill's provisions, but not one that created liability for manufacturers. "I am unalterably opposed to strict liability," he said. "There is no type of compromise to change that."
Meanwhile, the embattled bill is preventing lawmakers from taking up other important issues. "Once this is out of the Ag Committee, I think we will be able to work on some really good legislation that will help farmers in the state of Vermont," Partridge says. "But we have to get over this hurdle."
If S.18 passes, Vermont would become the first state in the nation to put liability on manufacturers. New York, Montana and Nebraska have all rejected similar legislation. A bill in California has been tabled until at least 2006.
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