A key Maryland Senate committee approved a bill yesterday that would allow the state to join a regional milk-pricing group, setting the stage for a final decision on the issue as early as tomorrow.
After a week of heavy lobbying from both sides, the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 7-4 to allow Maryland to join the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, a consortium of six New England states that sets the farm price of Class 1 (drinking) milk.
The action sends the legislation to the full Senate, where a floor fight is expected amid growing pressure from lobbyists for grocery retailers, who oppose the bill, and dairy farmers, who want it.
Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee, said he would wait until at least tomorrow before bringing the bill to the floor.
His committee had defeated a similar bill by an 8-3 vote March 10, but the House of Delegates resurrected the issue and sent the Senate panel an amended version of the proposal.
Blount noted the House version included an important provision that would allow Maryland to withdraw from the compact after two years should legislators be unhappy with the results. That made it more palatable, he said.
Some committee members also were contacted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a strong advocate of the proposal who last week visited the committee to persuade senators to support the measure.
But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, was not convinced and voted against the measure yesterday.
"I think it will increase the price of milk," Frosh said. "I'm not convinced that the dairy farmers will derive enough benefit from it to justify the increase in price."
Proponents of the legislation maintain participation in the compact will help dairy farmers and ensure a future supply of milk at a fair price.
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 alone since lawmakers blocked a similar bill last year, they say.
But opponents, including major grocery retailers, argue that the compact is a price-fixing scheme that would raise the cost of milk to consumers.
They also have said 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 enactment of the compact legislation is just the first step in a longer process. Congress eventually has to 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.
States already in the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact are Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Pub Date: 4/08/98