ANNAPOLIS – A bill that would let Maryland dairy farmers set a minimum price for milk could be revived Wednesday by the same Senate committee that appeared to have killed it last month.
The Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 8-3 in March against a proposal to let Maryland farmers join the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, saying the move would raise prices and hurt consumers.
But the committee agreed to reconsider the bill Tuesday, after the House passed its own version of bill last week on an 82-53 vote.
“Because of the House action there’s been kind of a renewed interest,” said Sen. Christopher McCabe, R-Howard.
Supporters of the bill believe they now have enough votes to get it out of the Senate committee, noting that the House bill pulls the state out of the compact after two years.
But opponents argued strenuously Tuesday that the compact would merely prop up the state’s dairy farms at the expense of consumers, who they said could end up paying an extra $70 million a year for milk.
“It’s a subsidy bill, it’s exactly what it appears to be,” said Alan Rifkin, a lobbyist for Giant Food and Safeway. “It’s another tax on Maryland consumers.”
Rifkin agreed with supporters of the bill that the decline of Maryland’s dairy industry is a “very serious problem.” The number of dairy farms in the state has dropped 25 percent since 1991, with 82 failing last year alone.
“A lot of farmers absolutely cannot afford to stay in this business any more, and that’s why they’re selling out to development,” said Sen. John Derr, R-Frederick, a supporter of the bill.
But Rifkin said the dairy compact is the wrong way to go.
“It’s the wrong way to help an industry and there are better ways to do it,” he said.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, challenged Rifkin’s claim that the bill would raise prices, saying it merely attempts to stabilize them.
“I think you know prices fluctuate wildly,” Stoltzfus said, because they are currently set by the federal government based on the price of cheese in the Midwest.
He said that while the compact might raise millions each year for farmers, the increase would be negligible for the average consumer.
The Glendening administration has lobbied intensely for the bill since the Senate committee’s earlier vote to kill it. McCabe said the administration’s plan to implement strict new fertilizer regulations on farmers to prevent another outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida could also be weighing in favor of the dairy compact this time around.
“There’s a desire to pass as tough a nutrient-management bill as possible,” he said. “As a result, people are taking another look at the long-term future of agriculture in Maryland, which gives us another reason to look at this (the compact) closely.”
McCabe said the two-year sunset in the House version of the bill would let the state see “whether this was a wise course of action or not,” and get out if it had to.
Sen. Larry Haines, R-Carroll, said his father was a dairy farmer, but, “The profit margin was so narrow that I decided to get out.
“I went into the real estate business and started selling farms for a living,” Haines said. “Those farmers are not going to have the same option I did because the farms are not going to be there to sell.”