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Editorial - Dairy bill's second shot

April 02, 1998

Last month's vote by a Maryland state senate committee to kill a bill to create a milk-price support program for the state's dairy industry was no surprise, given the lobbying campaign by the big grocery chains which successfully tagged the bill as a "milk tax." But when the dust settled, state agriculture officials decided that doing nothing for Maryland's dairy industry, which has lost 25 percent of its farms since 1991, was unacceptable. We agree. It's time for a full-court press on this legislation.

The legislation would allow Maryland to become a member of the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, which would determine what price farmers get for milk by using a panel made up of farmers, consumers, milk processors and welfare officials.

When the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee defeated the bill on an 8-3 vote in mid-March, some members of the state agriculture secretary's advisory committee expressed concern that if Maryland opted not to join the compact and surrounding states did, Maryland could become a dumping ground for their excess milk. Other criticized Gov. Parris Glendening, who they said had backed the bill with farmers, but hadn't expended much effort to get it passed.

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The bill is a natural fit with the governor's "Smart Growth" program, which directs new development to existing urban areas to save money that would otherwise be spent to build schools and provide water, sewer and other services in rural areas.

Without a better price for their milk - it hasn't gone up in more than five years - escalating costs for machinery, fertilizer and other items will eventually force farmers out of business. When that happens, their only recourse is to sell their property for development, often to those who want to build new homes which require services that all county taxpayers must share in paying for.

The better alternative, as we see it, is to enact this compact and pay, if necessary, a few cents a gallon extra for milk. It's a small price to pay for preserving this county's rural quality of life now and preventing higher taxes later.

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