Chicken tax sponsor refuses to quit

Even though the "Poultry Fair Share Act" stands no chance of becoming law, the sponsor of the controversial bill to tax Maryland's chickens refuses to give up, saying he wants to have a public discussion on who should pay to control polluted farm runoff fouling the Cheapeake Bay.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. said Wednesday that despite a veto threat from Gov. Martin O'Malley and the withdrawal of a companion House bill, he doesn't plan to drop - yet - his proposal to levy a 5-cent tax on every chicken produced in Maryland, to be paid by the poultry companies that contract with farmers to raise them.

"I think it's important that we have the opportunity to have the hearing" said the Montgomery County Democrat, "to explain what the concerns are and why this is a potential solution to a serious environmental problem." The hearing is set for Feb. 25

The proposed tax is supported by some environmentalists, who argue that the poultry industry rather than Maryland taxpayers ought to shoulder the burden of controlling farm runoff.  An estimated 300 million chickens are raised annually in the state, and their nutrient-rich manure is widely used as fertilizer on crop fields. Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But the legislation has drawn the ire of Maryland farmers, who insist that they're controlling runoff and not polluting the bay. Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Perdue Farms, based in Salisbury, called it "an unfair tax on one industry" and noted the company's financial support for recycling and transporting poultry manure.

"From Perdue’s perspective, we’ve done our fair share and then some," DeYoung said.

The industry's political supporters include the governor, who vowed last week to reject the tax bill if it somehow passed.

"We cannot surivive as a state unless ag is profitable in our state," O'Malley said at a dinner honoring Maryland farmers last week. He drew applause when he added: "Read my lips, if that chicken tax bill passes I will veto it." 

With the state funding the effort to the tune of $93 million, according to O'Malley, farmers have voluntarily planted pollution-absorbing cover crops on a record number of acres.

Del. Shane Robinson, another Montgomery Democrat who put in the House version of the chicken tax, declared he would withdraw it after learning of O'Malley's threat.

On Wednesday, Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. suggested in a floor speech that merely talking about taxing chickens could hurt farmers and communities in his lower Eastern Shore district, the heart of the state's poultry industry.  Mathias, a Democrat and former mayor of Ocean City, said bond rating analysts in New York had quizzed a Worcester County commissioner about the chicken tax this week as they were reviewing the county's latest plan for financing school construction.

 "So when issues like this are brought up on the floor 'just to start a conversation,'" Mathias said, "they have real consequences."

Madaleno rose in response, but rather than stick up for his bill he praised Mathias for his "impassioned defense" of farmers and said he hoped to work with the Shore senator on how to protect both farmers and the bay in a way that is "fair for everyone in the state."

At a nickel per chicken, the tax could raise $15 million, not quite what the state pays farmers annually now to plant "cover crops" each fall to soak up excess fertilizer in their fields and keep it from washing off in winter rains and snow melt.  Madaleno's bill would direct the tax revenue be spent on cover crops and other farm pollution control measures.

"We still want to … keep the dialog going as to how do we solve this problem," Madaleno said. "Is it one where we all pay for it, we all ignore it  or we try to identify what's the cause of the problem and the fairest way to pay for its remediation."

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