In the pecking order of Annapolis, the chicken tax is pretty low on the list.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley helped to ensure that when he said he would veto legislation that would of passed add a five-cent tax to every chicken sold in Maryland.
“The truth of the matters is we’re one Maryland, we are all in this together. We cannot survive as a state unless agriculture is profitable in our state,” O’Malley said at the annual taste of Maryland Dinner. “I will tell you this — read my lips — if that chicken tax bill passes I will veto it.”
Under the proposal, the poultry companies would pay the tax into the Bay Restoration Fund, and the money would go to pay for agricultural practices that benefit the Chesapeake Bay, such as cover crops. It would also help pay for upgrades to septic systems, which are common in rural areas.
The chicken tax proposal would have raised about $15 million a year, according to the bill's fiscal analysis.
After O’Malley’s comments, Del. Shane Robinson, the Montgomery County delegate that sponsored the House bill, withdrew it. It had little chance even before O’Malley’s remarks, he said, and now it had none.
But despite O’Malley’s promise to veto the bill, one of the sponsors of the Senate version, Sen. Richard Madaleno, also of Montgomery County, insisted the conversation about the bill happen,even if the governor’s announcement made the bill dead on arrival if it reached his desk. So the legislature held a hearing earlier this week.
“Just because the governor said he doesn't intend to sign this into law it’s still worth explaining to the public and to all of you why this bill is in and why we have to start addressing this problem,” said Madaleno, according to the Delmarva Daily Times. “Maybe he has decided in the last year of his term he doesn't want to address this problem, but we have to address this problem.”
Madaleno added that 37 percent of the phosphorus that reaches the Bay comes from animal manure and 50 percent of that is likely from chicken manure.
The fact that legislators for affluent Montgomery County put in these bills raised the ire of the chicken industry, which feels that a war is being waged on them from the Washington suburbs.
Food and Water Watch, which has a base in Washington, DC, has been one of the most vocal critics of the chicken industry. It circulated a petition online stating the companies are not paying their fair share for the waste they’re generating from chickens. In past session, Food and Water Watch successfully lobbied the legislature to ban arsenic in chicken feed, making Maryland the first state to do so.
But a Perdue spokesman said the focus on the industry is unfair. Perdue is the only chicken company in Maryland that offers farmers an alternative for their chickens' waste through its Agricycle plant, which composts the manure and litter and turns it into a turf supplement.
If other Marylanders have to pay for their waste treatment through the flush fee (a fee paid by homeowners that is used to upgrade sewage treatment plants and septic tanks, and to plant cover crops), Madaleno reasoned that the chicken companies should have to pay as well.
So while it’s goodbye to the chicken tax bill, it may be just goodbye for now. O’Malley has been supportive of the chicken industry in Maryland and Perdue in particular, criticizing the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic for representing the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Perdue and one of its contract growers. But there is an election later this year, and there will be a new governor next, and legislation has a way of coming back year after year.
It took several years to pass the bill banning arsenic in chicken feed. It could take several more years before Maryland is ready to embrace a tax on one of the Eastern Shore’s largest employers - especially when Delaware and Virginia are not following suit.