The lucky few who happened to walk into the state Assembly Committee on Agriculture June 29 meeting got to witness a legislative ambush.
State Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) deleted the entire text of a bill to reduce air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley, SB1056, and replaced it with a draft law that would deny cities and counties the ability to regulate genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Both parties use this “gut-and-amend” tactic to get contentious issues up for votes without having to face organized opposition. An amended bill can be voted on even though the new language has not been made public.
Florez’s surprise attack, quickly labeled the “Monsanto Law,” was an end-run around Mendocino, Trinity, and Marin counties, where voters passed bans on GMO seeds in 2004, and Sonoma County, where voters will decide on a ban this November.
Gut-and-amends are often outrageous, but Florez’s attempt was spectacular. As word spread through the Capitol halls, enraged lobbyists came speed-walking to the meeting.
Two days earlier, Assembly members Juan Arambula (D-Fresno) and Simon Salinas (D-Salinas) gutted a bill on seed label requirements, amending it to prevent cities and counties from banning GMOs. They were scheduled to present the bill, AB1508, at the Senate Committee on Agriculture the following day. Their amendments had been posted to the Internet, and environmentalists, small farm groups, and county and city officials had rallied to oppose the bill. Arambula and Salinas pulled it from the committee hearing at the last minute.
Less than 24 hours later, Senator Florez gutted his air quality bill, amending it with the same language Arambula and Salinas used. Florez didn’t post his changes on the Internet, but simply presented them at the hearing.
It’s amazing that state legislators don’t get sued for whiplash.
Sacramento lobbyist Pete Price says the fireworks are less important than the issue. “People outside of the process portray it as a scandalous, tricky thing, but it’s really not. It’s just part of the process,” says Price. “I wouldn’t get too troubled about that, but you should be troubled by the content of the bill.”
Becky Tarbotton, campaign coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, says the double-whammy is a premeditated attack on local democracy aimed at preempting the upcoming Sonoma County vote.
At the meeting, Florez, flanked by representatives of the California Seed Association and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, told the committee that it would be “disastrous if every county had their own definition of the rules for hauling and planting seeds.” This is an odd statement coming from Florez, whose SB 926 seeks to allow county jurisdictions to ban the dumping of human waste, or “sludge,” mostly from Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura counties.
Florez says if the legislature does not support SB926, he’ll take it straight to a countywide initiative—unless Los Angeles can gut-and-amend a bill to strip counties of the right to ban sludge first.
At the hearing, Pete Price, representing the Community League of Conservation Voters and the Community Alliance for Family Farmers, pointed out the hypocrisy of trying to eliminate the ability of counties to ban GMOs while pushing for a county ban on sludge. Florez countered that environmentalists were hypocritical for not supporting his sludge ban.
Actually, Florez’s sludge bill may be the first time that the Sierra Club, the Western Growers Association, and the City of Bakersfield have all supported the same law. Big agriculture lobby groups support both bills: they don’t want sludge in their soil, and they don’t want bans on their GE seeds.
Barbara Mathews (D-Tracy), chair of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture, held the bill from a vote. She said the committee must hold a special hearing on the bill, pointing to the people who had dashed into the hearing room to oppose it.
The special hearing for Florez’s Monsanto Law was never scheduled. On September 2, he again amended the bill— posting the amendments online this time—so that nursery stock and seeds would be regulated solely by the state. The newly amended bill did not make it to a floor vote, thus will be taken up again when the legislature reconvenes in January.
So after all the hocus-pocus with bill language, Florez’s bill will have to go through the lengthy process of committee hearings and public testimony next year. Get ready.