Monsanto hearings tempt wrong kind of fate | What the Devil won't tell you
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What the Devil won't tell you

Monsanto hearings tempt wrong kind of fate

Left-wing wrath awaits county's good intentions, powerless position

Sometimes establishing trust between the government and the people means the government must tell the people: You are absolutely screwed.

Hey, it'd be honest, and honesty goes a lot further toward gaining public trust than telling them to take up proverbial arms in an unwinnable war, which will just lead to a Gallipoli-like massacre.

In November, Pima County supervisors punted a decision about endorsing a foreign trade zone for an incoming Monsanto greenhouse. Monsanto of course, is the Bond villain of the Fortune 500.  The U.S. Department of Commerce will have the final say on the trade zone designation but the feds let the local government weigh in first. They're under no obligation to follow the local lead.

The supes control one thing and that is “your privilege to know” what's going on at their local greenhouse. But giving the people the most they have to offer, means voting for the Monsanto deal. The loud and numerous opposition voices want Monsanto gone. So, there's a disconnect.

The county has scheduled five – one for each district – public hearings ahead of the trade zone endorsement vote in February. Seems they want to educate voters.

This can only end in tears.

I get Supervisor Richard Elias wanting to keep the people plugged in. It seems like good civics. However, you don't bring an easel, marker and pointer to a domestic dispute. In politics, good deeds get punished with Swiss timing.

County officials will be in the building. The feds, with discretionary power, will be two time zones away. There's a reason people "kick the dog." The dog is handy to the foot.

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These five public hearings will not be five teachable moments about the virtues of the Monsanto deal. It's just five chances to piss people off.

Powerless politicians claiming helplessness after asking angry people to yell at them just makes the mad madder and reinforces myths about the fix being in because the system is rigged.

Monsanto will get credited with a victory it never had to fight. Opponents will feel like they lost a fight that was never going to be won at the county level.

I'm not in any way saying “don't fight city hall.” I'm saying understand the difference between city hall and federal Commerce Department. Neither of them look anything like Ally Miller.

Let's clear op the confusion

I think there's some confusion out there about the foreign trade zone and the county's role in it. Many press reports describe trade zones only as property tax breaks for the county to approve.

Wrong.

Local officials get to have an advisory voice in the process, but it's the Commerce Department of the incoming Trump administration that'll make the determination.

Pima County is already a free trade zone (FTZ 174, in case you were wondering). Monsanto wants to tap into it but not just for a property tax cut.

A company in a trade zone gets federal relief on duties, import tariffs and export taxes needed for manufacturing in the U.S. That's the big deal. That's what they are after. Arizona is one of a handful of states providing tax breaks to go along with trade zones. Those tax breaks are just the cherry on top of the sundae.

Once the Commerce Department grants trade zone status to a firm, the company gets a tax break automatically through the magic and wonder of the Arizona Revised Statutes. 

It doesn't matter that Monsanto already planned to move into Pima County, bringing 30-50 jobs and eventually generating $650,000 in property tax revenue. foreign trade zones are tax breaks for international operations and not local economic development.

Where's the county authority? Exactly.

Local control (such as it is)

The supes are voting on a “memorandum of understanding,” which is bureaucratese for “agreement.” Monsanto gets the county's endorsement and in return, agrees to make a financial agreement above and beyond state law to help fund Marana schools. The agreement also provides for a county science committee to review what's going on at the company's greenhouse.

This brings us to the operation here. Monsanto has agreed to let the county establish an oversight commission – an unprecedented step for a private business – that will keep the community informed about what's happening on the site. They will do this in exchange for an endorsement.

Otherwise, Pima County government, and therefor the people, have no right – none, zero, nada, nichts (nod to Monsanto's German parent Bayer) – to dictate any terms to the company about its operations unless the company says OK.

No deal means no concessions.

If a business buys land, zoned for a particular operation, they can build a plant that operates accordingly. The county can no more refuse Monsanto's greenhouse because Tucson objects to genetically modified foods any more than it can nix an Apple Store in protest of Chinese occupational safety practices at the company's Foxconn plant in China.

Rumor has it ... "record stores" are even allowed to sell Nickelback music.

And in the case of agricultural land, the private property rights are even more paramount, said County Zoning Administrator Yves Kwaham.

All one needs is five contiguous acres producing more than half the property owner's income via growing and reaping to qualify as a "farm." Farms are exempt from zoning codes.

Kwaham told me about a court case in Yuma where farmers claimed migrant worker housing was exempt from building codes and safety regulations. The Arizona Supreme Court agreed with them and ruled the worker housing was incidental to the operation of a farm and zoning law did not apply.

Without the memorandum, Monsanto still gets duties, tariffs and property taxes cut through the U.S. Code and Arizona Revised Statutes. They still get to do whatever it is they do whenever they want to do it. And we don't get to know about it.

'Big league' implications

It comes down to the folks at Commerce deciding whether the deal fits the law and Trump administration priorities. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that Trump can't say no to Monsanto – and it's got nothing to do with Roundup.

So far, the markets are giving the Donald a pass on browbeating companies seeking to move manufacturing jobs out of the country. If President Obama had done this, he'd have been impeached – but no matter because President-elect Trump is promising big tax cuts. He likes tax cuts. And that's exactly what a foreign trade zone provides..

More to the point, foreign trade zones help U.S. manufacturers employ American workers right here in America. If Trump starts swinging the cleaver at American companies manufacturing here, then he creates a paradigm where U.S. companies get whacked for going and get whacked for staying.

The Department of Commerce really has no choice working with the Tweeter-in-Chief.

This is almost certainly a done deal. Will it be done with some of the community's concerns addressed or none? That's the question before the supervisors.

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See Spot make for cover

Don't like Monsanto? Great. Get after it. Fight the power where it's at and not where it's most convenient to strike out.

Cozy up to/lean on Arizona's congressional representation. Get to the governor. They won't listen? They're in the bag for Monsanto, you say? Then fight to elect different people.

Civic responsibility requires voters understand who they are fighting and who can deliver them what victory. Changing state and federal policy means wielding power over Phoenix and Washington. Beating up on Ramon Valadez ain't gonna get the job done.

I'm saying get in the boss's grill and leave Fido alone. And Fido, when your person has that look on his face, it's OK to hide under the table. Sometimes the best you can do is let the people be angry.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Anti-Monsanto protesters in Hawaii, 2012.