Senate kills price-setting milk pact

Filibuster bars renewal of Northeast alliance Maryland is set to join

August 05, 1999|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Senate failed yesterday to extend the life of New England's price-setting dairy compact, dealing a blow to Maryland's plans to join a system that sets milk prices paid to farmers.

Supporters of the New England alliance fell seven votes short of the 60 necessary to overcome a filibuster that blocked a one year extension of the compact, which is set to expire in October.

"It's unfortunate that they didn't succeed on that," said Patrick McMillan, assistant to Maryland Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts. "But it's not the end of it."

The Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact sets drinking milk prices for six states and can be extended only to contiguous states.

Maryland, in which the governor and legislature have approved joining the compact, became eligible when Delaware joined in May. The Pennsylvania legislature's decision in June to join the compact added another mid-Atlantic participant to the alliance.

The filibuster not only blocked the compact's extension but also barred the U.S. Agriculture Department from going forward with an overhaul of its milk-pricing policy. "It's very clear the Senate doesn't like cartels, whether it be for dairy or another commodity," said Sen. Herb Kohl, the Wisconsin Democrat who led the filibuster.

Despite the defeat, compact supporters said they had not given up on the Senate and were confident the House would approve the extension. The vote showed a majority of senators support dairy compacts, said Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont. "Getting a majority was very important," he said.

Supporters say the legislation would slow the sharp decline in the number of diary farms by stabilizing the price farmers receive for their milk, which can vary dramatically from month to month. Maryland has lost 40 percent of its dairy farms over the past decade.

Consumer groups do not like the price-setting arrangements and upper Midwest farmers, who produce far more milk than they can sell in their region, fear they will lead to price-depressing surpluses nationwide.

McMillan blamed yesterday's legislative setback on the milk-processing industry. "I don't think anyone should be surprised, because of the resources they are spending to thwart the New England compact," he said.

The support of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland shows the compacts have influential allies, he said.

"I think it's significant to note that all of these states went through the process of considering compacts and every one passed a bill that allows them to join the compact," McMillan said.

Bob Gray, executive director of the Council of Northeast Farmer Cooperatives, which supports compacts, said he was optimistic about an eventual victory. "We look upon this vote as an expression of support for the compacts by 53 senators," he said. "If it had been 53-47 the other way I wouldn't have been very happy."

He said the legislation has good chances in the House, and that supporters could introduce an amendment to extend the compact when House and Senate negotiators meet to reconcile different versions of agriculture legislation.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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