Tuesday, March 19, 2013


GMO, Hawaii and how lobbying works

by Larry Geller

A GMO labeling bill is at play in the Hawaii State Legislature that may or may not survive. One issue is its proposed regulation of products imported to Hawaii, which could run afoul of federal law.

It’s not exactly a fair fight. The GMO lobby, spearheaded by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, are lining up big bucks like rows of GMO corn to defend chemical company profits. They’ve already held a lobbying event that only big bucks could pull off.

Lobbying works. See Rowland: Return on Whirlpool lobbying investment: 6700% (acorncentreblog.com (Boston Globe), 3/17/2013). Lobbying pays off handsomely in DC and in state legislatures across the country. Hawaii is no exception.

Even as ordinary citizens’ livelihoods are threatened by “fiscal cliffs”, “sequestration” and the threat of loss of retirement benefits, business and energy tax breaks, worth $67 billion this year were stuffed into fiscal cliff postponement legislation as a result of intensive lobbying on the hill.

We won’t learn about campaign contributions to Hawaii lawmakers until reports are filed after the session, but each year resembles those past, and so we can be sure that big bucks are being offered and accepted.

On the other side of the fence are advocates and consumers who are concerned with one aspect or another of the dangers of eating or growing GMO crops. That these fields are present in Hawaii at all is probably a reflection of the success of lobbyists and state courting of the GMO industry. Now Hawaii legislators are being asked not to mow down the crops but to just give us a choice of whether or not we want to eat GMO products.

At last, we’re waking up:

For years, transgenic agriculture went largely unnoticed by most Islanders, save for those who tended the crops or noted its contribution to the state's $50 million seed corn industry, which expanded five-fold over the past decade and is now split about equally between GMOs and conventional hybrids. At most, they may have heard of Hawai'i's own contribution to the world of biotech: a papaya genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus.

The above is tiny part of a definitive article by Kauai journalist Joan Conrow originally published in Hawaii Magazine in 2005. You can read it on the web:

Who Grows There?: Hawai‘i is a hotbed for crops of genetically-modified organisms—GMOs. But is anyone keeping an eye on these experiments? (Piko, 2/2/2013).

We need to hold our legislators accountable. House and Senate leadership regularly exercise undemocratic power to kill bills at their whim. It’s standard operating practice. This denies popular measures a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote.

This is why monitoring which legislators got on the bus to the “Taste of AG” event was a critical step 1. But it was only step 1, there needs to be steps 2 and 3 and so forth.

Otherwise we’re simply letting lobbyists for special interests run our government and our lives.



Part Two:

There is a great deal of frustration among citizens WANTING to have a role in improving our society, building a better, more sustainable, more humane society in Hawaii. The political process in Hawaii has evolved within a society dominated by corporate interests, but TEMPORARILY(?) counter-balanced by the organized workers of the plantations, the docks and building trades. The returning WWII vets used the Democratic Party to push back the corporate domination enough for the expansion of a multi-ethnic middle-class, with government services conducive to its expansion and wellbeing. The decline of the traditional demographic base of the Democratic Party, along with the decline of union strength in an era of "globalization" and the spread of neo-liberal economics, means the old Dem strategy does not work any longer and the "cadre" of the party are more likely to be ambitious urban "sharpies" than people skeptical of, and willing to stand up to, the forces made powerful by the marketplace.

Back to my earlier point: can those pushing for an egalitarian, sustainable future compete effectively within the legislative process against the self-interst of the large, increasingly transnational corporations and their hired guns? Understanding that with the private financing of elections, the term "hired guns" includes many of the key legislators themselves? Can we increase the number of competent "citizen lobbyists" in the face of the perpetual uphill treadmill they face or do we lose them to apathy, anger, alienation and cynicism?

There ARE some reasons for optimism. In addition to the "sustainability" forces mobilized around the PLDC and some in opposition to GMOs, there are groups like AIKEA, with the resources of the Hotelworkers' union, Local 5, behind them. There was a massive demonstration of public school teachers on the Capitol grounds the other day, angry and uncertain how to effectively apply political pressure, build public support (or even win a new contract in the face of the Governor's obstinency). School teachers can be an essential component of a movement for social change. The disorganization at the top of HSTA has its downside, but it may force them to seek out more allies, try to new approaches beyond "narrow trade unionism."

In the atmosphere of widespread anti-union sentiment, a lot of otherwise "progressive" citizens may buy into the slanders against he public sector unions. But I have found them to be open to building alliances. UHPA is thoroughly coopted at this point by their uncritical attachment to Governor Abercrombie. UPW has tended to restrict itself in recent years to its own narrow interests and may be a bit too supportive of the conservative, pro-development building trades. But HGEA, the union of most "white collar" public employees, is often open to support the good ideas of other non-union networks. For example, when HGEA decided to support civil unions as a basic right of equality for its members, the tide quickly turned in the legislature.

So how to we train ourselves, as activists and how to we build enough competence as citizen lobbyists to provide a counter-weight against the mercenary hired guns of the corporations at the Lege? How do we compel the Legislature to become more democratic and less corporatist?

I think it can be done. But that it would benefit from some purposeful, strategic conversations.

Here was Part One. Not sure what happened to it.

I agree the money invested in lobbying pays out much higher returns than almost any other venue a company might pursue. Spending a few thousand dollars can easily net a company benefits worth many times more. That is true at all levels of government.

But the public should not therefore believe the Legislature is awash with money. It actually takes very little money to pay lobbyists to track bills, develop relationships with legislators and advocate on your behalf. The legislative process in Hawaii is so chaotic, so esoteric that it requires years to develop a good understanding of how it works and few people have the time or dedication to immerse themselves in it long enough to learn the ropes.

There are far too many bills being considered in a short time, committee members are expected to go along with the decisions of their chairs, bad bills are routinely passed along when they should be held in order to allow the final decisions to be made in conference committee and the whole process is governed by unseen horse-trading, the logic of which requires insider information to understand. In this environment, dedicated, professional lobbyists can be significant players and individual, key legislators can do favors without having their "fingerprints" scrutinized by the public.

On "our side," there are a few dedicated and competent "citizen" lobbyists. Kat Brady stands out. Jean Aoki of the League of Women Voters was, for years, an honest, attentive and wise witness of the process. Robert Harris of the Sierra Club is reliable on environmental issues. Henry Curtis not only has a nose for "smelly" influences, but is able to do the research and lay out the evidence as to why a lot of the official spin conceals sweetheart deals for political cronies and monied interests.

There are several "media" whereby members of the public can learn about and become motivated to participate in support of, or opposition to, legislation. But those are delicate threads for information and understanding. This blog is one, as is Derrick DePledge's and Ian Lind's. The Honolulu Weekly is, unfortunately, less useful than it had been for periods in the past. Civil Beat has emerged as one of the best sources. Not only for the news, but also for the comments, sometimes "civil" and sometimes informed. The Star-Advertiser editorials are generally useless, unless one of the citizen lobbyist groups has been able to brief them and raise their understanding of the issues. Otherwise, they default to a "city fathers" know-it-all corporate elite viewpoint, which only reinforces the spin of the dominant economic groups. AKA, their advertisers. TV News can only afford to pay attention to "hot" items, which tends to incentivize media events.

Facebook played a significant role in building mass opposition to the PLDC. It is not clear to me whether it will be capable of continuing to play such a significant role or if another social media might be able to take its place. Recent changes in Facebook policy have reduced its effectiveness in getting the word out, unless one is willing to pay to "promote" your page. The logic of the marketplace reasserting itself in a way which favors those with cash.

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