Group calls for input on trade agreements

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LEWISTON – The Citizen Trade Policy Commission wants to hear how international trade agreements are affecting Mainers – whether the news is good or bad.

The commission, appointed by the Legislature in the summer of 2004, is holding a hearing Thursday evening, inviting people to share their personal experiences with trade agreements. The hearing, the fourth the commission has held around the state, is an opportunity for members to hear people’s concerns, and then follow up with state legislation or action at the federal level if appropriate.

“We see the commission as an important resource to give the public a greater voice,” said Matt Schlobohm, a commission member and coordinator of the Maine Fair Trade Campaign.

Organizers have heard people express worry over losing jobs to foreign competition and loss of sovereign decision-making, as well as the potential of expanding markets that could benefit Maine businesses. Hearings have already been held in Bangor, Portland and Houlton.

“It is becoming clear to me that international trade agreements can be used to circumscribe a state’s ability to govern its own affairs,” said Rumford Rep. John Patrick in a prepared statement. He chairs the commission with Lewiston Sen. Peggy Rotundo. “However, international trade agreements, when properly worded, offer the promise of expanded markets and substantial economic benefit for businesses and consumers alike. A balance needs to be reached and we strongly encourage the public to attend the Lewiston meeting …”

Commissioners are particularly interested in hearing comments about the impact of trade agreements on business, the environment, labor and democracy.

Schlobohm said there are increasing fears that international trade agreements can supersede domestic law. He cited a situation where big-box retailers could challenge local zoning restrictions under the World Trade Organization agreement that states municipalities can’t limit market access. An extension of agreements to include service providers now means for-profit foreign companies could demand access to programs administered by governments. For instance, UPS is suing the Canadian government for access to provide some mail delivery services, said Schlobohm.

Pete Connell, president and CEO of Oxford Homes and a commission member, said the group has helped shine a light on a practice that put Maine modular home builders at a disadvantage. Some Canadian workers were crossing the border as visitors with imported homes, then installing and maintaining modular houses, taking jobs away from Maine workers.

At issue was an interpretation of the North American Free Trade Agreement that has since been clarified, with the help of the commission and industry trade groups.

“It’s a very serious commission,” said Connell. “We don’t take our work lightly at all.”

The 17-member commission also helps craft public policy with respect to trade. After conducting research on the impact of the Central American Free Trade Agreement on Maine last year, the commission drafted a statement asking the state’s congressional delegation to oppose CAFTA’s passage. It also has developed a relationship with the federal office of the U.S. Trade Representative, to monitor the impact of trade agreements in Maine and convey concerns.

Connell said the magnitude of impact from trade agreements isn’t well known among the general public, but very real.

“If people knew the issues, they’d be quaking in fear,” said Connell.

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