Maryland House OK's dairy bill

March 31, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

ANNAPOLIS - Dairy farmers won a significant victory Tuesday in the Maryland House of Delegates, where lawmakers voted to approve legislation that would set milk price supports in the state.

But the bill, which would allow Maryland to join a compact of dairy-producing states, faces an uphill struggle in the Senate, which already has rejected similar milk legislation.

The House approved the legislation by a 82-53 vote after an hour-long debate. Rural lawmakers argued that the bill was a way to help a troubled industry.

"It's one of those days that makes it worthwhile coming down here," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington. All members of the Western Maryland delegation voted for the bill.


"I'm thrilled," said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, who added the vote was too close to call before the debate.

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

Many farmers believe the bill is needed to return stability to a business in which 25 percent of Maryland's farms have been lost since 1991. Washington County is the second-largest milk producer in the state; Frederick county is first.

Opponents, led by grocery retailers in the state, called the legislation a "milk tax" during an aggressive lobbying campaign, warning that consumers would end up paying higher prices at the supermarket.

That message had an effect in the state Senate, where the Economic and Environmental Matters Committee voted 8-3 last month to kill the legislation.

Last weekend, the House Environmental Matters Committee approved a compromise version of the legislation under which the law would have remained in effect only for two years unless the General Assembly agreed to keep it in effect.

During Tuesday's debate on the House floor, several lawmakers voiced concern the bill would increase the price of milk for their constituents.

"It would be an automatic increase (for the farmers), but there wouldn't be a decrease at the market," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., R-Baltimore County.

Poole said consumers would see their milk prices increase if the bill isn't passed.

"If you eliminate dairy farms, eventually prices are going to go up," he said.

Some opponents of the bill argued that milk prices would be controlled by out-of-state officials on the milk compact board.

"I just don't think it's fair that we have no control whatsoever on the price of milk in this state," said Del. Cornell N. Dypski, D-Baltimore.

But Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington, said the state would have representatives on the compact board.

"If you read the bill, you will find out that Maryland will have a say in the compact," Stup said.

She criticized the "erroneous and inaccurate" campaign being waged by the bill's opponents. Other lawmakers agreed.

"This is not a milk tax. This is an opportunity to save an industry that is enormously important to the state of Maryland," Hecht said.

Supporters of the legislation now are faced with trying to convince the same Senate panel that earlier rejected the dairy legislation. They said the two-year limit on the law would help them in that effort.

"It has a chance," said Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick/Washington.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, said his panel will give the House bill a fair review.

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