ANNAPOLIS – A bill to let dairy farmers set minimum wholesale milk prices passed a crucial vote Thursday in the Senate, which voted 26-20 for the plan that opponents say will gouge consumers.
The bill still faces another Senate vote before it can be sent to Gov. Parris Glendening, who has said he will sign it. But supporters are confident now that they can pass the bill to let Maryland join the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact.
“A lot of the rural legislators have worked really hard on it,” said Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, who said he is “fairly confident” the bill will pass on the final vote.
Supporters said the compact’s guaranteed wholesale price would help rescue the state’s failing dairy industry. Since 1991, 25 percent of the state’s dairy farms have gone under.
“We’re going to tend to see more and more dairy farms go on the market and be sold,” said Sen. Larry Haines, R-Carroll. “Let’s pass this bill out of the Senate and give our farmers a little bit of hope.”
Middleton said that as family-owned dairy farms fail, they will be replaced by large farms that tend to keep prices high to increase profits.
But Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore, said the compact, headquartered in New England and setting prices for all member states, would also keep prices high.
“I’m very concerned that people who live in my district shouldn’t be victimized by price fixing, which is exactly what this is about,” she said.
Opponents say Maryland consumers would pay as much as $70 million more per year at the supermarket for milk if the state joins the compact. They dispute farmers’ claims that retail milk prices could drop if grocery chains can depend on a stable price they will have to pay for wholesale milk.
The House bill approved Thursday by the Senate has a two- year time limit, which may have made it more palatable than an open-ended bill that died last month in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
The complex plan and its possible effects have been hotly contested in recent weeks.
“When I look at the lobbyists and the interests and the money behind it, there’s a lot of money at stake,” said Sen. Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore and chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Blount voted against the Senate bill but for the House bill, with its two-year limit.
“This issue is a bogeyman issue,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of the bill. Don’t be afraid of compacts.”
Opponents took some comfort from Thursday’s vote.
“We’re encouraged that there were 20 red votes against the adoption” of the compact, said Alan Rifkin, a lobbyist for Giant Food and Safeway Stores Inc.
“There was a lot of debate that we were encouraged by,” he said.