ANNAPOLIS – The Senate gave final approval Friday to a bill to let Maryland join the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact and Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he will sign it into law.
But consumers fearing an increase in milk prices — and dairy farmers looking for the help the compact would bring — may not see any change before the end of the year, if then.
At least two other states must join before Maryland farmers can become part of the compact and begin charging its minimum wholesale price.
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow,” said Valerie Connelly, a lobbyist for the Maryland Farm Bureau. “We still have to jump through these other hoops.”
Giant Food spokesman Barry Scher, who fought the bill, called Friday’s vote a “hollow victory” because supporters might not be able to persuade Congress to extend the compact’s life.
“Not only does the bill have to be authorized by Congress, but it has to be renewed by Congress in 1999,” he said.
The federal law that allowed the creation of the compact requires that all member states be contiguous. Six New England states are already in the compact, which sets a minimum guaranteed wholesale price for milk, but there is currently no link between them and Maryland.
New Jersey voted to join the compact this year. But before Maryland can join, New York must sign up along with either Pennsylvania or Delaware. All three states are considering compact bills.
Connelly said farm bureaus in Maryland and other states “intend to make it a whole big East Coast effort” to get the others to join and to win congressional approval.
“It’s going to take the entire East Coast delegation in the House and Senate to move these compacts along,” she said.
She said that their efforts to persuade Congress would begin in earnest this fall if enough states decide to join.
Even though the compact will not take effect in Maryland immediately, Connelly said Friday’s vote “sends a positive message that dairy farms are important.”
Dairy farmers are “making their decisions about whether or not to sell their cows or hang in for another year,” she said.
Supporters note that the number of Maryland dairy farms has dropped 25 percent since 1991, with 82 going under last year. They say the compact could keep milk prices low by saving small dairy farms.
But opponents say the compact is little more than a “milk tax” that will cost Maryland consumers up to $70 million more per year.
Del. Paul Stull, R-Frederick and a compact supporter, said he and other members of the Western Maryland delegation will work on other legislatures to persuade those states to join.
“We would like to see that done so we can move forward and get into the compact,” he said.
But Sen. Michael Collins, D-Baltimore, has seen the heated debate the issue sparked when it was brought before the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, on which he sits.
“I would suspect it’s a very divisive issue in other states as well,” said Collins, who supports the bill.