Baldacci requests WTO exemption

Original Publication Date: 
7 April, 2006
AUGUSTA - Concerned that state public services could be threatened by World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva this week, Gov. John E. Baldacci has asked federal trade officials to exempt Maine from the WTO's service sector rules.

As the WTO prepares to review its General Agreement on Trade in Services, Baldacci wrote U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and joined Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski in seeking removal from parts of the WTO services agreement.

'I write to request that you carve Maine out of new service offers you are proposing in the context of the current round of Doha negotiations,' Baldacci wrote. 'Maine does not wish to be bound to GATS rules for any new services.'

Matt Schlobohm, coordinator for a coalition of labor unions, faith-based organizations and individuals known as the Maine Fair Trade Campaign, said states may opt out of certain provisions of the WTO and that gubernatorial requests result in 'de facto approval' by Portman's office. Schlobohm said absent Baldacci's action, Maine faced some serious potential threats to its ability to deliver current and future services.

'If Maine wanted to create a universal health care system, that is a violation that could violate the GATS health care rules, which basically says it is illegal to create a government monopoly in a service sector that is covered by this agreement,' he said. 'So if Maine went ahead and did that, it could be challenged by a trading partner as a violation.'

Efforts to reach Portman's office for comment were unsuccessful Friday.

In his letter, Baldacci further stated that trade issues are some of the most 'critical issues' of the day.

'Maine cannot sit idly by and let the federal government negotiate trade agreements that undermine public services, good paying jobs, and our ability to make our own decisions at the state and local level,' the governor wrote. 'I'm going to do all that I can to promote trade that respects democracy and truly benefits Maine workers and businesses.'

Schlobohm said the WTO's GATS provision sets down trade rules in the global service sector and requires that U.S. domestic laws must conform with commitments U.S. trade officials make under the agreement. In a prepared statement, Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association feared that without Baldacci's intervention, the WTO services agreement could have a negative impact on higher education in Maine.

'Committing higher education to the GATS rules would limit Maine's regulatory authority in this area and accelerate the privatization of higher education,' he said. 'Gov. Baldacci did the right thing by ensuring that Maine's education system cannot be challenged or undermined by international trade deals.'