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Milk bill back on table in legislature

March 30, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

ANNAPOLIS - Considered a dead issue in the Maryland General Assembly less than a week ago, legislation for milk price supports for Maryland dairy farmers has been given new life in the General Assembly.

A vote on the legislation that would allow Maryland to join a compact of dairy-producing states could come today in the House of Delegates.

"We're feeling really good about it," said Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington.

The bill likely would face an uphill climb in the Senate, where the Economic and Environmental Matters Committee voted 8-3 early this month to reject another version of the legislation, labeled "a milk tax" in a fierce lobbying campaign waged by grocery retailers and other opponents.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, chairman of the committee, said that while the bill would be heard by his panel, he doesn't see any reason why the outcome would be different this time.

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"That would mean our first judgment was faulty, and I don't believe our first judgment was faulty," Blount said.

In an effort to gain broader appeal among lawmakers, the House Environmental Matters Committee approved a version of the bill last weekend that has a crucial "sunset" provision, under which the law would go out of effect in two years unless the legislature were to take further action.

Stup, a member of the committee, said the renewed effort to get the bill passed might be related to the fact that time is becoming critical in the legislative session, which has less than two weeks left before adjournment.

"And maybe people found out the truth," 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 last July.

Many farmers believe the bill is necessary to set price controls and return stability to a business in which 25 percent of Maryland's farms have been lost since 1991.

The issue is significant locally because Washington County is the second-largest dairy-producing county in the state, with 196 farms. Frederick County is the largest, with 236 farms.

Supporters of the legislation warned that if Maryland doesn't join the compact, it would be surrounded by states that have price-support advantages, and those states would be able to dump their excess milk into Maryland at lower costs.

"If we become an island, (dairy farms) are not going to be here," said Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

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