Oregon: Was crush of campaign donations related to GMO bill?

The moment Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a September special session focused on fiscal issues, campaign contributions from out-of-state agribusiness and biotechnology giants began pouring into state lawmakers’ campaign coffers.

Two weeks later a bill barring local governments from regulating genetically modified seeds and crops was added to the so-called “grand bargain” as a condition of its passage.

The grand bargain of public pension reform, taxes and education funding passed in the special session, but so did the genetically modified crops bill.

Since the session was announced, a dozen companies including Monsanto, Novartis and Syngenta have contributed at least $127,745 to 35 legislators’ campaign committees, the two Republican caucus political action committees, and three other PACs that contribute to candidates, campaign finance records show.

“Obviously these out-of-state companies made a big investment to try to pass this special session bill,” said Ivan Maluski, interim executive director of Friends of Family Farmers.

“This kind of information really only raises more questions about why this happened,” Maluski said. “This bill elicited a huge public outcry from voters across the state. Farmers in just about every district of the state raised concerns, as did consumers.”

Communities across the country are debating regulation of genetically modified crops and labeling of genetically modified food.

Next week, Washington state residents will vote on a labeling law. The bill’s opponents so far have raised a record-setting $21.4 million, while supporters have raised $6.3 million.

In Oregon, the debate gained steam last year when Jackson County farmers discovered that Syngenta had planted genetically modified sugar beets within a mile of organic farmers’ fields near Ashland. Three farmers destroyed their crops because of fears they had been contaminated.

In January of this year, Jackson County residents got enough signatures to place a citizen’s initiative on the May 2014 ballot that would ban the growing of genetically modified crops in that county.

Activists in Benton, Lane, Josephine and Multnomah counties began working on similar efforts.

In February, during the regular session, Oregon lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 633, which would prohibit such local regulation. It was approved by the Senate, but died in committee in the House.

Senate Bill 863, approved during the special session, mirrored that bill with two exceptions: If voters approve Jackson County’s ballot initiative, that county will be exempt from the law. And the law took effect on passage, effectively heading off any attempt to refer the matter to voters statewide.

Kitzhaber announced the special session Sept. 4.

By Sept. 18, when caucus leaders completed closed-door negotiations at Mahonia Hall, the companies had made at least $91,495 in campaign contributions.

By the time the session began Sept. 30, that total had reached $117,745.

Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, which supports House Republicans, received $9,500 in contributions.

The Leadership Fund, which supports Senate Republicans, got $12,000.

The Oregon Farm Bureau Political Action Committee got $12,000. The Farm Bureau was a major supporter of the bill. It later contributed a total of $2,500 to the Republican caucus PACs and House Republican Leader Mike McLane.

Kevin Curry, spokesman for the House Republicans, said the timing and amount of the contributions is not significant.

“The agriculture and natural resources industry has always been supportive of House Republicans throughout the years,” Curry said.

As for the timing, Curry said, “We are fundraising all the time after the (regular) session ends. There are a lot of factors that go into when contributions from any group come in, such as budgeting cycles and whether we or individual candidates have held fundraising events.”

The companies had contributed $13,594 before the session was called, bringing the total so far this year to $141,339.

Last year those same companies contributed $334,165 to Oregon committees, up from $93,101 in 2011.

tloew@statesmanjournal.com or (503) 399-6779
Oct. 28, 2013
http://www.statesmanjournal.com/article/20131028/NEWS/310280021/Was-crus...