The Obama administration is "very close" to unveiling a plan that could help end a year-old tariff by Mexico on Washington frozen potatoes and other agricultural products, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., questioned LaHood about the status of administration efforts to resolve a trade dispute that contributed to a $19.7 million decline in the value of exported Washington agricultural products to Mexico in 2009 compared with 2008.
Mexico imposed a 20 percent tariff on about 90 agricultural and other products last year. And it has hit potato farmers particularly hard because Mexico is the No. 2 international export market for Washington frozen potatoes.
Washington sustained an estimated $14 million decline in frozen potatoes exported to Mexico from April to December 2009, according to the Washington State Potato Commission. About 20,000 jobs are supported by the state's potato industry.
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The U.S. potato industry, said the commission, has lost $31 million worth of export business since the start of the retaliatory tariffs, which were imposed after the expiration of a pilot program that allowed about 100 Mexican-owned trucks access to U.S. highways.
LaHood, questioned by Murray at the end of his appearance before a Senate subcommittee she chairs, said the administration will be announcing a new effort to restore the cross-border trucking program.
"President Obama's intent is to restart this program. It's part of NAFTA," LaHood told Murray.
The trade dispute began in April 2009 after the end of the pilot trucking program, which was intended to show that Mexican trucks and drivers could operate safely on U.S. highways beyond border areas.
The Teamsters Union and some highway safety groups objected to the pilot program, arguing Mexican trucks are unsafe.
But the fallout has hurt Washington growers and it has cost jobs, Murray said, citing the pending closure of the ConAgra Lamb Weston plant in Prosser.
ConAgra told its 250 employees in Prosser in late March that the closure was a reflection of the economy, sale of fewer frozen potato products and the expense of operating the plant.
"If we don't address this problem soon, this will just be the beginning. Thousands more jobs in Washington state and across the country are in serious jeopardy of being shipped outside our borders," Murray said.
The tariffs will be one of the topics of discussion between President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon during his state visit to Washington this month, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, told Murray during a meeting earlier this week.
-- Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; email@example.com