ANNAPOLIS – Supporters are bracing for a tough fight Thursday over a bill that would let Maryland dairy farmers set minimum wholesale milk prices, a plan that opponents said could cost consumers $70 million a year.
The bill, which would let Maryland join the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, is expected to reach the full Senate Thursday.
“We’re lobbying it very hard,” said Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for Safeway Stores Inc. “There’s a number of senators we’ve spoken with who are very concerned and troubled about passing a bill that’s going to increase the price of milk.”
But backers of the plan say it is necessary to the survival of dairy farms in the state.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset and a key supporter of the compact, said the price increase per consumer would be negligible under the compact and that bordering states will join anyway.
“If we don’t do something, we’ll be the only state to not be a member of a compact. That would really hurt our farmers” and their ability to compete, he said.
The bill would allow Maryland dairy farmers to join other Northeast states to set a stable, minimum wholesale price for milk. Six New England states are already in the compact and, even if House Bill 237 passes here, Maryland could not join until Pennsylvania agrees to.
Stoltzfus predicted a very close vote on the issue.
“It’s going to be a tough fight on the floor,” he said.
The bill passed the House 82-53 last week and the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, which had killed a version of the bill earlier this year, approved it on a 7-4 vote Tuesday evening.
The committee agreed to reconsider the issue after intense lobbying by the Glendening administration. The House bill’s two- year time limit helped sway many Senate committee members who were nervous about the effects the plan might have.
“We don’t know, but we’ll find out. That’s why we have a two-year time limit,” said Sen. Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore and chairman of the committee, who voted against the Senate bill but for the House bill.
Opponents have called the bill a “milk tax” that could especially hurt lower-income families, who spend more of their food budget on milk.
But advocates argue that prices could rise anyway if farms keep going under. They note that the number of Maryland dairy farms has declined 25 percent since 1991, with 82 failing last year alone.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening will sign the bill if it passes, said Ray Feldmann, his spokesman.
“The governor has been very concerned about the pressures that have been put on dairy farmers for development,” Feldmann said.
Giant Food spokesman Barry Scher said he is “hopeful that it will not pass,” but added that the level of support in the Senate is far from certain.
“It changes every two seconds,” he said.