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Maryland milk bill approved

April 11, 1998

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Western Maryland lawmakers in the General Assembly won a remarkable comeback victory Friday with the passage of legislation that would create milk price supports for the state's ailing dairy industry.

The 27-20 vote by the state Senate culminated two weeks of political deal-making, vote-counting and intense lobbying that saw rural interests butt heads with some of the state's powerful grocery retailers.

"I'm just fantastically happy. I can't believe it," said Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick/Washington.

"This is too cool," said Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington. "Since I'm not running (for re-election) again, it's a beautiful way to go out. I'm on a high."

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The supporters' celebration was magnified because just last month the milk legislation was believed to be dead. A Senate panel killed the bill amid a grocer-led lobbying campaign that labeled the measure a "milk tax" that would raise prices for consumers.

But then supporters began pushing another version of the bill, aided by a personal pitch to lawmakers by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and it began a swift climb through the legislative process.

The legislature's annual 90-day session ends Monday, adding more drama to the issue.

"I really think it's the comeback bill of the term," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

The legislation, which already has been approved by the House of Delegates, would allow Maryland to join a compact of northeastern states that has been setting minimum prices paid to farmers for milk since last year.

Supporters believe it would have significant local impact because Washington County is the second-largest milk-producing county in the state, with 15,100 dairy cows. Frederick County is the largest, with 27,800 dairy cows.

But they also said the impact would be much broader because fewer dairy farms eventually would lead to higher milk prices and turn farmland into housing developments.

"I think ultimately it comes down to doing the right thing for all the people of Maryland," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Still, opponents kept fighting during the floor debate before Friday's vote.

"This is a milk tax. I don't ever want to hear the governor tell me again that during his four years he has never enacted a tax," said Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County.

But supporters said the bill is needed to assist a troubled industry. Since 1991 the state has lost 25 percent of its dairy farms, with 82 going out of business last year.

"This isn't a milking by the farmer. This is a bleeding by the farmer. They are very, very desperate right now," said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, D-Charles.

"I don't see this as a tax. I see this as a little bit of relief," Middleton added.

After the vote, Glendening applauded the Senate on its decision.

"I was obviously very pleased. The bill, I think, is important to the state of Maryland," he said.

Glendening called the milk tax claims "nonsense, nonsense, nonsense," and said there is no indication retail milk prices automatically will rise because of the compact.

"That was a scare tactic that was thrown in at the last moment," he said.

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