Senate weakens milk bill Amendment would let retailers set prices @

March 14, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate voted yesterday to substantially weaken a price support bill designed to make the Maryland milk industry competitive with Virginia and Pennsylvania, but which critics say is anti-consumer.

The bill would have allowed regulators to set minimum prices for milk at three levels -- farm, processor and retail. But the amendment passed yesterday would allow retailers to continue setting their own prices.

Opponents of the bill warned, during a lively debate, that if

minimum milk prices are permitted as proposed, the price of Buicks, potato chips, Ferragamo shoes -- any product at all -- could be regulated next by the state government.

Final consideration of the amended Senate bill, which faces an uncertain future, is expected to come Monday or Tuesday. A similar bill is scheduled to be heard today in the House of Delegates.

Resisting the Senate amendment yesterday, the bill's prime sponsor, Sen. David R. Craig, R-Harford, called the original proposal a three-legged regulatory stool. The amendment would remove the retail leg, but still allow the agriculture secretary to set minimum prices for the raw milk farmers sell and the processed product sold to stores.

"I'll take a half-gallon if I can't get the whole gallon," said Craig, who said he will try to secure the handful of votes he still needs by the time the bill is considered for final passage.

"It's clearly a gutting amendment, designed to save retailers from having to disclose to the public what the true cost of milk is," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist representing dairy farming interests. Retailers, he said, "can slip across state lines and bring cheap milk back outside the ambit of both Maryland and Pennsylvania law."

"That would be OK if they passed the savings on to the consumers, but we have the highest milk prices on the Eastern seaboard."

Evans' lobbying opponent, Alan M. Rifkin, applauded yesterday's action. He represents a number of retailers, including Giant Food, that would be able to continue to set prices if yesterday's amendment were to become law.

"The senators who voted for it clearly recognized how unusual it would have been and how costly. The amendment helps to make a very bad bill somewhat better, but not so much better that it should become law," he said.

Craig said the amended bill would not prevent Maryland retailers from buying "excess" milk from Pennsylvania or Virginia and selling it at the prices they usually charge in Maryland, widening the profit margins. Producers in those states, where price is regulated, have been "dumping" milk at below-production costs to grab new customers in Maryland.

During the lengthy debate on the bill, senators offered a wide range of views. Some said it was an anti-consumer bill unless amended; some said the amendment had to be defeated to save Maryland dairy farmers and consumers, and one said the debate was so confusing the Senate should stand pat.

"If you're barefoot and in the woods and you hear the sound of a rattlesnake," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, "stand still and listen before you move, or you may move the wrong way."

Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Republican who proposed the amendment, said retailers could not elect to be the "Jack Luskin of milk" as "the cheapest guy in town," if they could not sell below a minimum price established by the agriculture secretary.

Such a milk seller exists, according to Sen. George W. Della. He said a grocer in his Baltimore neighborhood doing business as "Bucky's" had grown from one to 11 stores by advertising "the cheapest milk in town." This bill, he said, "would force Bucky Lynch to take his sign down."

The legislation springs from the deliberations of a task force appointed to study the declining Maryland milk industry.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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