Mateusz Perkowski | Capital Press | April 8, 2015 | Capital Press
A proposed ballot initiative in Oregon would allow local government regulation of GMO, which is currently pre-empted by state law.

Local governments in Oregon could restrict pesticides and genetically modified organisms despite statewide pre-emption laws under a ballot initiative proposed for the 2016 election.

Proponents hope to pass a “Right to Local, Community Self-Government” amendment to Oregon’s constitution written to immunize local ordinances from state and federal pre-emption.

Currently, the state government can pre-empt cities and counties action on nearly every subject, said Paul Diller, a law professor at Willamette University.

“This amendment would flip that presumption in many more instances,” he said.

While the proposed amendment wouldn’t have any power over federal pre-emption — that would require a change to the U.S. Constitution — it would override state pre-emption with a simple majority vote if it gets on the ballot, Diller said.

“We want to be part of the decision-making process,” said Mary Geddry, a chief petitioner for the ballot initiative.

State regulatory agencies currently make decisions by which local communities must abide, she said. “We want to democratize the process.”

Pre-emption is a key subject of recent battles over GMOs, which were banned by Jackson and Josephine counties last year. Benton County will vote on a GMO prohibition in May and supporters in Lane County are trying to get a similar initiative on the ballot.

However, state lawmakers in 2013 pre-empted local regulations of GMOs except in Jackson County, where the measure had already qualified for the ballot. Local regulation of pesticides is also pre-empted in Oregon.

Unenforceable county GMO bans and other pre-empted ordinances would likely be retroactively activated if the ballot initative is approved by voters, said Diller.

“I would assume it would apply to anything that’s still on the books,” he said.

Overturning state pre-emption would affect numerous other laws that set a statewide standard, such as the statute against local rent control ordinances, Diller said.

“I think it would be an absolute boondoggle if it passes, not just for agriculture but a host of other issues,” said Scott Dahlman, policy director for Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agribusiness group that supports state pre-emption of GMO and pesticide rules.

The proposal to overturn state pre-emption is part of the “same movement” as GMO prohibitions, as well as restrictions on oil and gas pipelines, he said.

To qualify for the Oregon general election ballot in 2016, supporters must collect more than 117,500 valid signatures. As a constitutional amendment, the initiative faces a steeper hurdle than the roughly 88,000 needed to get a statutory measure on the ballot.

To begin the process of drafting a ballot title, though, supporters only need to gather 1,000 signatures.

“That’s not a very high bar,” said Dahlman.