Maryland milk bill goes sour

March 11, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

Maryland milk bill goes sour

ANNAPOLIS - Milk price-support legislation many dairy farmers had considered crucial to their futures was dealt a near-fatal blow Tuesday by a Maryland General Assembly committee.

The Senate Economic and Environmental Matters Committee voted 8-3 to reject the legislation, which would have allowed the state to join a dairy compact with other states.

An identical version of the bill is still in a House of Delegates committee, but is threatened by partisan bickering and an intense lobbying campaign waged by opponents.


"I would say that pretty much does it in for this year," Del. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett, chairman of the Western Maryland Delegation.

Earlier in the day, several Democrats on the House Environmental Matters Committee said they had serious concerns about the legislation, labeled by some opponents as "a milk tax." They also said they have reservations about supporting a bill that is being pushed by some of the same Republicans who refuse to support their legislation.

"The same people who are asking us (to support the milk legislation) on the Republican side are the same ones trying to stick it to us," said Del. James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George's.

But Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington, said the dairy bill should not be used for political reward or retribution.

"I think every bill has to stand on its own merit," said Stup, one of the legislation's biggest supporters.

She said a bigger problem with the dairy bill has been the number of metropolitan-area lawmakers of both parties who have lined up in opposition.

"It has nothing to do with partisan politics. It's urban versus rural," Stup said.

The milk legislation would allow Maryland to join the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, a federally created organization that has been setting the price farmers receive in the New England states since July.

Retailers such as Giant and Safeway fought the proposal with newspaper ads that attacked the bill as a "milk tax" that would cost consumers millions of dollars while benefiting a few hundred farmers. The rising retail cost of milk is due to higher production and marketing costs, officials said.

Grocery retailers and other opponents said the legislation would result in higher costs for consumers. But many farmers said the bill is necessary to set price controls and return stability to a business that has lost 25 percent of its farms statewide since 1991.

In the Baltimore region, farmers have been paid about $1.34 per gallon since 1988. During that period, the retail price grew from $2.04 per gallon to $2.68 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The compact price farmers get for milk has been $1.46 per gallon since it began in July.

Washington County is the second-largest dairy-producing county in the state, with 196 farms. Frederick County is the largest, with 236 farms.

"We're not asking for a big (price) increase. It's just something to help stave off going out of business," said John Herbst, a Ringgold dairy farmer.

Herbst and several other dairy farmers traveled to Annapolis to support the bill at the request of Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington. Hecht said she was concerned about a lack of support among some Democrats in the Environmental Matters Committee and wanted her colleagues to hear from the people who make their lives in the dairy business.

"My concern was, we have to humanize this," she said.

But in a meeting with farmers, several Democrats seemed unswayed by the pitch. They said it would be tough selling the bill to their constituents, particularly those involved in food banks, homeless shelters and other nonprofit groups that feel the legislation would increase the cost of milk.

Later in the day the farmers met with House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, who said he would try to rally support for the legislation.

"It's an uphill battle, but I'm hopeful we can get it out of (the House) committee," Taylor said.

But less than an hour after the farmers met with Taylor, the Senate committee took its vote.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, who voted against the measure in committee, said she felt it would particularly hurt poor families with higher milk costs.

"I feel bad that we're not being of much help to the dairy farmers right now, but I am not comfortable voting for a milk compact and raising prices higher than they already are," Hollinger said.

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