Milking the consumer Dairy price controls: Farmers, Teamsters push to raise customer costs at grocery store.

February 27, 1997

IT IS THE biggest consumer rip-off of the General Assembly session. It means higher prices for milk, cottage cheese, low-fat ice cream, yogurt and frozen yogurt. It means an end to discount food coupons for these products. It means government controls.

Moreover, this proposal for state-mandated prices for milk and milk products would wind up hurting the very people it is $H supposed to help: Maryland's dairy farmers. The bill ought to be killed in committee, but a motley crew of conservative Republicans, inner-city lawmakers, the Teamsters union and Gov. Parris Glendening is promoting this outrageous plan as a "fairness" issue that somehow will save jobs.

"Unfairness" is more like it. This proposal will raise milk prices by 5 or 10 cents a gallon. It will hurt inner-city consumers most. The cost of lunch programs run by local school boards will rise. So will the cost to social service groups. Taxpayers expenses at prisons and state hospitals will rise by $500,000 a year.

And who will profit? Not the farmers, since federal price supports and existing co-ops already set their payment rate. Not the grocer, who suddenly won't be able to turn to the local free market to get the best buy on milk products. And certainly not the consumer, who will be the ultimate loser. Only milk processors -- yet most most of them oppose this bill.

Trying to control the free market never works. In this case, big grocers will simply buy their milk from states where milk is not subject to price controls. In Pennsylvania, which has milk price controls, higher milk prices are costing taxpayers an extra $10 million a year. The Philadelphia school board has begun importing cheaper milk from New Jersey.

Giving Maryland's secretary of agriculture sweeping, undefined power over milk price controls -- without any hearings or appeals process -- is risky. It distorts the free market system in Maryland. And it runs contrary to the phase-out of federal milk price supports.

Why harm consumers, grocers and farmers? Why erect free-market barriers when most other states and Washington are moving in the opposite direction? Why make it inevitable that grocery chains will bypass local farmers and import their milk from other states? This is a bad bill. It imposes the heavy hand of government in a way that will cost all Marylanders dearly.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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