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Milk bill is watered down

March 14, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Legislation to set minimum prices on milk - a move aimed at bolstering the state's ailing dairy industry - was watered down Thursday when Maryland lawmakers removed a key provision in the bill.

Senators, by a 26-21 vote, approved an amendment to drop a provision for setting minimum retail price controls on milk. With the change, the bill would set only state controls on wholesale milk prices.

"It is key to the entire legislation that we keep retail (price controls) in," Sen. David R. Craig, R-Harford, who argued unsuccessfully in a bid to kill the amendment during a lively debate that lasted more than an hour on the Senate floor.

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Without minimum retail prices, the legislation is greatly weakened, because there still will be pressure on grocery stores to have low milk prices, which could then place pressure on state regulators to keep wholesale prices low, he said.

"The amendment messes up the bill," said Sen. William H. Amoss, D-Harford.

Supporters of the amendment argued that retail price controls would increase milk prices.

"We're not asking the business community to take this medicine. We're asking the consumers to take this medicine," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore City.

The issue of milk price supports is considered important in Washington County, one of the largest dairy-producing counties in the state. Many local farmers have supported the price control legislation.

"This legislation will have a positive effect on the producer and the consumer," said Craig Leggett, who owns a dairy farm near Boonsboro.

Leggett and other supporters of the legislation claim price controls would help halt a trend under which 20 percent of the state's dairy farms have gone out of business in the past four years.

A study last year concluded that the state's $1 billion dairy industry faces unfair competition from Virginia and Pennsylvania, where minimum prices are set by the states.

With prices protected in their home states, Virginia and Pennsylvania processors can afford to sell their excess supply at discount prices in Maryland, the study said.

That's why price controls are needed in Maryland, Leggett said.

"Actually, we're just trying to put ourselves on a level playing field with everyone else," said Leggett, 40.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick/Washington, joined those voting against the amendment.

"If you vote for this amendment, you done milked this bill dry," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil.

But those in favor of weakening the legislation asked why the state should single out milk for price support. Moreover, they wondered if setting price controls on milk would open the door for similar supports on other consumer products.

"We should have minimum prices on a lot of things and the consumers can go home knowing the great state of Maryland has made life wonderful for them," Sen. Robert R. Neall, R-Anne Arundel, said.

The milk issue has been one of the most hotly debated topics during the General Assembly session. Several State House observers have said it has also been the most heavily lobbied piece of legislation, with those favoring and opposing supports constantly releasing conflicting information to lawmakers and the media.

"I'm thoroughly confused as to where the truth is," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore City.

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