Md. could be an island in sea of milk Hope: Del. Ronald Guns and some other state lawmakers are working to overcome what had seemed a fatal blow to dairy compact legislation.

March 30, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

As the result of a committee vote in Annapolis, Maryland could become the odd man out when it comes to dairy compact legislation, and industry officials say farmers and consumers would pay the price.

At least 21 Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast states, from Maine to Oklahoma, have either enacted dairy compact legislation or have bills pending. Delaware expects to introduce a milk compact bill in coming weeks.

"The way that things are going, Maryland stands to be an island by itself," said Thomas Irvin, Georgia's commissioner of agriculture.

Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick County Democrat and supporter of the milk bill, said no one can say for certain how Maryland might be affected. "No state has ever been in a situation like this before," she said. "And that's the scariest part."

A compact is a grouping of states that sets the regional farm price of Class 1 (drinking) milk. It is designed to stabilize wholesale prices, which vary greatly from month to month, and does not apply to other dairy products.

On March 10, the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 8-3 in opposition to the compact bill. At the time, the vote was considered a fatal blow, but Del. Ronald A. Guns, the Cecil County Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, said late last week that he is working on a House bill which he hopes the Senate will consider.

The concerns shared by lawmakers, industry representatives and the commissioner include:

The demise of Maryland's dairy farms, an industry that pumps an estimated $1 billion a year into the state's economy.

Higher prices at the grocery store if milk has to be shipped into the state from other regions of the country.

The loss of a dependable source of milk during adverse weather conditions.

A drain on the network of rural banks, suppliers of feed, farm machinery and veterinary services that cater to the dairy industry.

Guns said he hopes to bring up his legislation for a committee vote early this week by attaching several amendments designed to make it more palatable.

Under consideration is a sunset provision that would dissolve the compact after two years if the General Assembly is not happy with the results. "If it works, great. If it doesn't, we get rid of it," said Del. George W. Owings III, a Democrat whose district straddles parts of Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.

There is talk also of an amendment to exempt school milk programs from the legislation.

If Guns is successful, at least one Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee member has indicated he might reconsider his vote against the bill.

Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, has acknowledged that he voted against the milk compact in retribution against rural senators who voted for an amendment he opposed to a needle-exchange bill.

Collins, chairman of the Baltimore County delegation, told the Frederick News-Post that he was "truly angry" when he voted against the milk bill and conceded that lawmakers "should not cast votes in anger or retribution. "

Collins declined to return phone calls seeking comment.

There has been far less resistance to milk compact bills in some other states. The North Carolina legislature, for example, voted 169-1 in favor of a compact. In Tennessee, all 95 members of the House voted for the bill. The vote was 90-0 in the Oklahoma House.

In Pennsylvania, compact bills are still in House and Senate committees. "We will probably wait until New York takes the plunge," said Sally Bair, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Irvin, Georgia's agriculture commissioner, said he couldn't understand the action of the Maryland Senate.

"It's the same situation there as here," Irvin said. "Our concern was that if we lost our dairy farms we would lose our source of fresh, high-quality milk. If milk has to be shipped in from 2,000 miles away, it's going to take three or four days and you can bet it's going to cost a lot more."

Georgia is one of 13 states that have already enacted compact legislation.

Irvin said it is never a good situation when the business rules are not the same for all states.

"You don't want a situation where something could impede the flow of milk across state lines," he said.

"Maryland could find itself in a situation where it might have trouble getting milk if farmers in the state can't produce enough to meet demand."

In Maryland, there is strong opposition to compact legislation from the state's largest grocery chains, including Safeway and Giant Food Inc.

They argue that a compact will boost milk prices, putting undue hardship on Baltimore's poor. They said it would boost the profits of big farms while doing little to help smaller family operations.

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