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Glendening pushes for milk bill

April 02, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening on Wednesday took the unusual step of talking personally to members of the state Senate about his support for legislation aimed at helping the state's ailing dairy industry.

The face-to-face lobbying sessions came a day after the House of Delegates narrowly voted to pass a bill that would allow the state to join with other milk-producing states in a pricing compact. The legislation was expected to have a tough time in the Senate because one of its committees already has defeated a version of the legislation.

"We're just trying to talk to people and see if they would take another look at the bill," Glendening legislative aide Joseph C. Bryce said as the governor finished a series of afternoon meetings in the James Senate Office Building.

Local lawmakers said the governor's arm-twisting could provide a significant boost to legislation that was considered dead less than a week ago.

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"There's a high degree of optimism His personal contact will definitely help," said Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Washington.

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

Farmers believe the bill is necessary to restore stability to the dairy business. Maryland has lost 25 percent of its farms since 1991, leaving 869 statewide.

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

A fierce lobbying campaign waged by grocery retailers and other opponents labeled the legislation a milk tax that would result in higher prices for consumers. That message led to the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee defeating the bill last month.

Farmers in the Baltimore region have been receiving about $1.34 per gallon of milk since 1988. During that period, the retail price increased from $2.04 per gallon to $2.68 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retail costs increased because of higher costs of marketing and production, retailers said.

Farmers in states belonging to the compact have been getting $1.46 per gallon since the compact began in July.

Supporters hope that the governor's personal appeals, along with a recently added amendment that would set a two-year sunset on the bill unless legislators extend it, could improve the bill's chance in the Senate.

"I think there's a better chance than there was before (Glendening) was working it," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery.

Frosh was one of the committee members who voted against the bill last month. Asked if he would change his position, he said, "I wouldn't rule it out. It's a possibility, but not likely."

Alan M. Rifkin, a lobbyist working for supermarkets that oppose the bill, said he hadn't known about the governor's efforts.

"I'm surprised he is supporting a tax," Rifkin said.

Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann said the governor makes personal pitches for legislation only in certain cases, such as bills he believes in that might be in trouble in the General Assembly.

The timing - the 90-day General Assembly session ends April 13 - might also be a factor, Feldmann said.

"He feels this is a common sense proposal that would contribute strongly to the survival of the dairy industry," he said.

Some lawmakers said the move could improve the governor's image among those farmers who feel he has targeted their industry by asking for increased agriculture runoff controls to combat the Pfiesteria problem.

"I think it's an opportunity for the farming community to understand how much the governor supports their industry," said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

New York and Pennsylvania would have to join the compact before Maryland would be allowed, but legislatures in those states are debating such a move.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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