Perdue's ruffled feathers [Editorial]

Our view: Perdue Farms chairman says he has no voice in Maryland, but the evidence suggests otherwise

September 22, 2014

Last week, Jim Perdue spoke at a Maryland Chamber of Commerce event to complain about the regulatory environment in the state where his company roosts. "The problem is, we have no seat at the table in Maryland," the Perdue Farms chairman said, according to the Baltimore Business Journal. "Even if we have an onerous thing that happens in Virginia or Delaware, we can sit at the table and at least express our opinion."

Wow. Just wow.

No doubt there are a lot of corporate CEOs out there who are nodding their heads in agreement at Mr. Perdue's chirping. He went on about how he believes Maryland is quick to impose costly regulations on the poultry industry and that policy is dictated by bureaucrats and "you really don't have any discourse." That echoes sentiments often expressed by chamber members, particularly those frustrated by state government, who believe Maryland's economy would be booming if not for excessive taxes and restrictions.

But here's the problem with that narrative. From this perch, it appears Perdue, one of the largest privately-held companies in the state, has a great deal of influence on government affairs. Here are just a few examples:

•In February, Gov. Martin O'Malley threatened to veto Senate Bill 725 before a single hearing was held on the measure. What did it take to cause such a reaction from a governor normally reluctant to even comment on General Assembly deliberations — and who, at that point, had never vetoed a bill during seven years in the State House? It was a proposed 5-cent wholesale tax on chickens like those produced by Perdue to help finance $15 million annually in farm cover crops. The bill died quickly.

•One of the top priorities of environmental groups is to reduce phosphorus, a nutrient polluting the Chesapeake Bay and feeding algae blooms and enormous "dead zones" in the open water. Yet the state's agriculture department has held back on implementing new phosphorous regulations, at least in part because of the potential impact on the poultry industry, which is being studied under a $34,000 state grant to, believe it or not, the Franklin Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University.

•A private lawsuit brought against an Eastern Shore poultry farm for polluting the Pocomoke River — in which Perdue was a co-defendant — drew pointed meddling from Governor O'Malley well before all the facts of the case were known. Emails between the governor and a Perdue lawyer (a law school classmate of his) — uncovered by Food & Water Watch under a Freedom of Information Act request — suggested a cozy relationship. "Never TOO busy to hear from you," Mr. O'Malley wrote Herbert Frerichs Jr. in 2011. Meanwhile, the governor strongly lobbied the dean of the University of Maryland's law school to have its environmental law clinic drop all involvement in the suit, which was eventually decided in the defendants' favor.

•Not only has the O'Malley administration used taxpayer dollars to finance cover crops and other pollution control strategies for poultry farmers but it has advocated for creation of a subsidized waste-to-energy manure-fueled power plant to give farmers an alternative use for chicken litter, a project that Perdue has failed to similarly support.

Given those recent events, it's difficult to understand what Mr. Perdue expects from state government if not to ignore entirely the polluting effects of chicken waste on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. This notion that he doesn't have a "seat at the table" is belied by the evidence at hand. One can only wonder what kind of genuflection goes on in Delaware and Virginia to cause him to prefer the tables they set for him.

That's not to condemn Mr. Perdue or any business leader for acting in what he or she might perceive as a company's best interest, and we would certainly expect state agencies to listen to what Mr. Perdue has to say — as we would strongly recommend authorities take seriously the concerns of any business owner who believes state government is acting capriciously or unfairly. But we would also expect such captains of industry to understand the broader public interests at stake, including the billions of dollars in tourism, real estate, seafood and other economic opportunities that are tied to a healthy Chesapeake Bay.

It has become fashionable to bemoan the business "climate" in Maryland, the state with the highest per capita income in the country, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures available. Specific concerns of businesses, big or small, deserve to be explored, of course, but we would expect the Jim Perdues of the state to recognize that just as it takes a "tough man to make a tender chicken," it sometimes takes some tough rules to preserve a pleasant way of living.

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