GMO BILL ON THE DEFENSIVE: Sen. Richard Sears says a special fund to defend Vermont’s anti-GMO bill is not a legal defense fund.
By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
MONTPELIER, Vt. — A Vermont state senator who voted for a popular GMO food labeling bill now says the legislation’s $1.5 million legal defense fund sets a “a terrible, terrible precedent.”
When the Vermont Senate approved H.112 requiring food producers to warn of potential genetically modified organisms, lawmakers also approved a special fund to defend the bill against possible lawsuits from Monsanto and other food industry giants.
State Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who voted in favor the bill, is now saying the fund will have a corrupting influence on state politics.
“It’s a terrible, terrible precedent that can be started here. Creating a fund sends the message that if you come to us with any wacky proposal, as long as you’re willing to finance our defense of it, we’ll do it,” Mullin told Vermont Watchdog.
The fund’s $1.5 million target is based on the estimated cost of defending H.112 in court.
State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who helped develop the special fund, has nevertheless objected to calling it “a defense fund.”
“We tried to be clear that this was not a defense fund,” Sears told colleagues on the Senate floor. “The wording regarding the fund and how it’s supposed to be used goes well beyond the defense of the state. It also includes the cost of establishing rules.”
The Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Fund is considered a crucial component of the GMO bill because Vermont taxpayers stand to lose $8 million if the courts declare the legislation unconstitutional.
While Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws in 2013, triggers in those states prevent those laws from going into effect until enough states have similar laws and can unite to defend them. The Vermont Legislature has decided not to use a trigger.
Mullin told Watchdog.org he was perplexed by Sears’ claims and said the Legislature undoubtedly was setting up a legal defense fund.
“He (Sears) tried to say it’s not a defense fund, but if you take a look at the numbers, the attorney general said it was going to cost him $1.5 million to defend it. And, coincidentally, this fund is a $1.5 million fund,” Mullin said.
Sears claimed the fund for H.112 wasn’t unusual as the state manages many special funds.
According to Vermont’s transparency site Spotlight.vermont.gov, examples of special funds include the Fish & Wildlife Fund, the DUI Enforcement Fund and the Tobacco Settlement Fund.
The Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Fund differs from other funds in that it opens the door for donations from anti-GMO special interest groups.
Mullin told Watchdog that funds open to public donations don’t typically allow for political advocacy.
“You have donation check-off boxes on your income tax form, and you can buy special driver’s license plates that go to conservation and things like that. But those go to specific programs, not to defend something,” he said.
Sears’ insistence that the fund is not a legal defense fund contradicts other comments offered during his April 15 report on H.112.
“There has been interest expressed by a number of individuals who have either written or e-mailed me indicating their willingness to help Vermont withstand a legal challenge. This would be an opportunity for them to do that,” Sears said.
Sears also said a constituent told him, “Grow some backbone and vote for this bill and we’ll send you all kinds of money.”
When asked if the Legislature was showing leadership by passing a GMO labeling bill without triggers, Mullin said Vermont would be unwise to go it alone.
“The (GMO movement) is a national movement, and the only success they’ve had so far is to get states to pass it with triggers,” Mullin said. “But they finally found a state that was foolish enough to go out there and be in front of the pending litigation that is going to come our way.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org