Milk compact gains in House Two attempts to limit plan defeated


March 31, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

A proposal to allow Maryland to join a regional milk pricing consortium cleared a key hurdle in the House of Delegates yesterday.

House members rejected two attempts to set limits on the state's proposed entrance in the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, a consortium of six New England states that sets the farm price of Class 1 (drinking) milk.

Del. James F. Ports, a Baltimore County Republican, proposed amending the bill to exempt low-income families who receive food stamps. And Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat, wanted to withdraw hospitals, nursing homes and other assisted living programs from participating. Both efforts failed overwhelmingly.

The compact is made up of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In Maryland, the compact's actions would be controlled by a panel of two dairy farmers, two consumers and a representative of a dairy processor.

Maryland farmers and the state's agriculture secretary have argued that membership in the compact will help slow the sharp decline in dairy farms. The state has lost 40 percent of its dairy farms over the last decade; 82 farms went out of business in the last year alone.

Even though the House appears poised to pass the authorizing legislation, its final passage remains uncertain because a Senate committee has rejected the companion version. The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 8-3 against joining the compact.

To make its version palatable, the House included a provision allowing Maryland to withdraw from the compact after two years if the legislature is unhappy with the results.

The proposal's proponents, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, hope the House version will pass and be reconsidered by the Senate committee. They say participation in the compact will help dairy farmers and ensure a future supply of milk at a fair price.

But opponents, including major grocery retailers, argue it will zTC increase milk prices. They also say it will create a hardship for those least able to afford it: Baltimore's poor, who already pay up to 65 cents a gallon more for milk than residents of rural areas.

Maryland is one of 21 Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast states, from Maine to Oklahoma, that have legislation pending or have joined dairy compacts. Delaware expects to introduce a milk compact bill in coming weeks. Thirteen states have enacted compact legislation.

There is concern among state and industry officials that Maryland could become an island surrounded by dairy compact states that would have different rules for doing business and different marketing incentives.

State enactment of compact legislation is the first step in a longer process. Congress eventually must approve the formation of any compact, and it is expected to open the door for an expansion of the Northeast compact and the formation of others later in the year.

Congressional endorsement is needed because regulating prices in a region normally would violate interstate commerce laws.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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