House kills bill to assist dairy farms Plan would have set minimum charge for wholesale, retail milk

Cost to consumers feared

Supporters said Pa., Va. processors had advantage over Md.

March 21, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Maryland lawmakers killed a bill yesterday that would have set minimum prices for milk at the wholesale and retail levels, fearing the measure would mean higher prices for consumers.

The 54-76 vote in the House of Delegates ended the fight on one of the most hotly debated topics of this year's General Assembly. It was perhaps the most highly lobbied bill of the session, with two of Annapolis' top lobbyists -- former law partners -- warring on opposite sides.

To most delegates, the battle boiled down to concern about higher Maryland milk prices.

"This is the bill that will milk you out of your dollars," Del. David M. Valderrama, a Prince George's County Democrat, said in opposing the bill during yesterday's floor debate.

Supporters of the measure were hoping it would breathe new life into the state's declining dairy farm industry by eliminating what they see as an unfair advantage that milk processors in Pennsylvania and Virginia have over Maryland's processors.

Pennsylvania and Virginia already have price support systems. So processors there can make profits on the milk they sell in their home states, then sell any excess milk in Maryland below production cost -- lower than Maryland's wholesale and retail operations say they can afford to sell it.

The Fairness in Milk Marketing Act would have given a state-appointed commission the authority to set the minimum prices for milk at the farm, processing and retail levels. It also would have allowed milk processors to set "sell-by" dates for up to 21 days -- seven more than current law allows -- as long as the state health secretary approved the plant's proposal to do so.

That was all in hopes of eliminating the edge Maryland's neighbors have had.

"The dairy industry is hurting," Del. Donald B. Elliott, a Carroll County Republican, said in his plea for support on the bill. "Not for one minute would I support price controls if it were not for the circumstances. What other bill have we passed that gave our dairy farmers a chance to survive their economic plight?"

But his and other arguments were made to no avail.

"The effect is that your dairy farmer in Maryland is not going to have the incentive to invest in that industry," said Del. J. Anita Stup, a Frederick County Republican who was the lead sponsor of the House bill. "Essentially, you have told your dairy farmers to go develop the land."

Stup said she believes the main reason the bill failed was because of the strong lobby against it. That intense battle pitted former law partners Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist representing the farmers, and Alan M. Rifkin, who was working for grocery retailers, against one another.

A weakened version of the bill passed the Senate last week. The measure's sponsors had thought there might be support in the House for the stronger, original legislation -- and were surprised to see the entire measure go down to defeat.

Stup said she was especially surprised by the 22-vote margin between the yeas and nays. "I thought it was going to be closer than that," she said.

Some of the measure's opponents said the milk pricing proposal is not the only way the statewide task force on the industry recommended helping Maryland's dairy farmers, a group that has declined 40 percent in nine years. Other proposals such as educational programs about the dairy industry and increased use of technology in milk processing could help, the panel said.

A price control program, it said, was not the answer.

Pennsylvania is considering eliminating its milk pricing program, so the concern about competition soon might be eliminated as well, said Barry F. Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant Food Inc. And Scher said he is looking into Virginia's program, hoping to have that program dissolved.

"The objective is to let the free market system reign," Scher said. "Price subsidy programs are a thing of the past."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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