WASHINGTON -- New England's 12 senators asked congressional leaders to extend regional milk price controls that are due to expire this week until Congress can turn its attention to major farm legislation, probably next year.
"At a time when the very economic fabric of our nation is being assaulted, we must give security wherever possible to our constituents and our consumers," the 12 senators, led by Democrat Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, said in a letter released Friday.
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., a vocal opponent of the Northeast Dairy Compact, criticized the request's timing -- a week after deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"This is clearly not the time to engage in a divisive regional debate, and not the time to extend policies that pit one region of our country against another," said Kohl.
The compact, which sets a minimum price that farmers in the six New England states must be paid for raw milk, is set to expire Sept. 30 unless Congress agrees to extend it.
Some dairy producers want Congress to expand the regional controls to include most of the Northeast and create a similar price-fixing scheme in the South for milk.
But farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho and other major dairy states have strongly opposed the system, arguing that it encourages overproduction and would drive milk prices down nationwide.
The New Englanders argued that the compact has provided a critical safety net for farmers by maintaining stable milk prices, and consumers in the area have been willing to pay more for milk.
"The additional money is going directly to the dairy farmer, helping to preserve a way of life in New England and helping to preserve dwindling farmland and open spaces," they wrote to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the top Republican on appropriations.
Specifically, the lawmakers asked that the extension be added to any of the spending bills that Congress must approve by Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year, to keep the government running. Congress could further consider dairy policy as part of the 2002 farm bill, which like other routine legislation has been put off while Congress deals with the aftermath of terrorist strikes.
Kohl said the upcoming expiration date should be seen as an opportunity to start discussing national dairy policy.
A report released last week by Congress' investigatory arm, the General Accounting Office, found that the compact boosted New England's farm income without significantly harming producers in other major dairy states. However, it also said the price-setting system has had little impact on the decline of farms in the Northeast.
New England farmers have earned an extra $146 million since 1997 because of the price controls, according to the commission that runs the compact.
But the GAO said farmers likely would have received some of that money anyway, because milk processors often pay more than price supports require, depending on market conditions.
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