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mySA: Clock ticking on NAFTA comments

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San Antonio, Texas, June 9, 2017 | comments

The clock is ticking down on the public comment period required for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and border trade groups and elected representatives have been entreating South Texas residents to weigh in.

“They’re asking for input from us, and I have to tell you something, I’m embarrassed,” Jose Martinez, president of the San Antonio-based Free Trade Alliance, told U.S. and Mexican business owners gathered Friday morning for an update on the NAFTA renegotiation process and timeline. “Those folks out there are giving us an opportunity … because we’re here in the field, on the ground. They want to negotiate with Mexico, and they want to know what it is we have to say.”

While many in the U.S. interior blame the 23-year pact for encouraging companies to outsource jobs and fuel a growing U.S.-Mexico trade deficit, San Antonio and cities along the Texas-Mexico border have enjoyed a boom in trade-related commerce.

San Antonio’s Toyota manufacturing plant is held up as an example of a NAFTA win for San Antonio, and border cities that have long ranked among the nation’s poorest are now home to thriving warehousing and logistics sectors. Texas’ exports to Mexico have increased more than 300 percent since the deal took effect.

Business leaders on both sides of the border say the uncertainty about NAFTA’s future — President Donald Trump during his candidacy slammed the three-nation free trade pact as bad for America — has put a damper on cross-border growth and investment. But the deadline to submit comment is Monday, June 12, and notices to stakeholders apparently have gotten only lackluster response.

“The bottom line is we are asking people to comment, and they’ve got to do it by Monday,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said in an interview. “And we’ve been asking people over and over to make sure they turn in that input on that. After that, we’ll be working on trying to do our part.”

Attorney and trade expert Robert Barnett said a renegotiated NAFTA would ideally be signed and ready for congressional approval by March. Trade Promotion Authority that was hard-won by the Obama administration expires in June 2018, adding more urgency.

Within days of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s confirmation, he sent Congress formal notice to renegotiate, setting off the required 90-day consultation period. The U.S. International Trade Commission is holding a hearing June 27. The UTSR is scheduled to publish detailed U.S. objectives for the renegotiation in July. Formal renegotiation cannot start before Aug. 17.

All agree times have changed since the three countries reached agreement in 1992, as digital commerce had yet to take off, the breakup of the Mexican government monopoly on its oil and gas sector hadn’t happened, and some spats — such as the recently resolved sugar dispute between the U.S. and Mexico — hadn’t played out.

“Modernization — that’s the key word,” Barnett said. “Not canceled and killed and spit on as the worst thing the U.S. has ever done.”

There’s already coordination between stakeholders of the three nations that didn’t exist during the original NAFTA talks, he said.

“Now, 25 years later, all the supply chains, all of the businesses, all of the investment has integrated,” Barnett said. “It’s not really possible for the U.S. Chamber (of Commerce), the Mexican Chamber and the Canadian Chamber to sort of approach this from different angles.”

Cuellar on Thursday met with Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Christopher Jackson to discuss issues including border infrastructure, the North American Development Bank, the flow of legitimate cross border financial transactions, and energy investments. He said he’s working on setting up a meeting between Lighthizer and border legislators “because I think we know it better than other folks.”

What neither the U.S. nor Mexico wants is for approval to drag into the July 2018 Mexican election or the November 2018 U.S. midterm elections, and Cuellar said he’d conveyed that to Jackson.

There could be new political roadblocks should a left-leaning candidate win the Mexican presidency, Cuellar said, and some members of Congress will want space between a NAFTA vote and Election Day.

“Everybody is cognizant that there’s elections that come next year on the Mexican side and over here on the U.S. side,” he said.

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Tags: Trade