JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri dairy farmers warned Thursday that consumers could face higher milk prices if lawmakers don't override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of legislation authorizing financial incentives for their industry.
The dairy cattle incentives are included in two broader agriculture bills that Nixon vetoed because they would shift regulation of deer farms from the Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture.
The deer provisions have dominated the public debate about the bills, but dairy farmers are attempting to draw attention to their own plight as lawmakers prepare for a Sept. 10 session to consider veto overrides.
Missouri has 1,233 licensed dairy farms, one-third fewer than a decade ago. Whereas the state once ranked 11th in dairy production, it now is 25th nationally.
The legislation "could be very important to hold the dairy industry in the state of Missouri," said Larry Purdom, president of the Missouri Dairy Association. "I think we deserve this."
The bills would authorize state subsidies for dairy farmers' premiums in a new federal insurance program that starts next week. The federal program is designed to minimize financial losses for dairy farmers by paying them when the margin between milk prices and their feed costs dips below certain thresholds.
The insurance premium subsidies are estimated to cost the state up to $3.2 million annually but could not be paid unless lawmakers include the money in the budget. There is no money budgeted for the current year.
The legislation also would authorize 80 college scholarships of up to $5,000 each for students who get internships at dairy farms and agree to work in Missouri agriculture after graduation. That also would be subject to budgeting.
If Missouri doesn't at least maintain or boost its local dairy production, more milk will have to be trucked in from other states, adding to the costs, the dairy group said.
"Consumer prices on dairy products will definitely be affected, if we don't get the slide turned around," said Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican and one of several lawmakers who joined dairy farmers at a Capitol press conference.
Nixon didn't mention the dairy provisions when vetoing the agriculture bills in July. He instead focused his displeasure on provisions that would define captive deer as "livestock" and thus shift regulations about things such as fencing from the Conservation Department to the Agriculture Department. Nixon said the bills would "mess with 80 years of success" in regulating wildlife by the Conservation Department.
A veto override requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers. The agriculture bills met that mark when they originally passed the Senate but fell a few votes short in the House.
State Rep. Casey Guernsey, a Bethany Republican and former dairy farmer who sponsored the legislation, said Thursday that he is confident the vetoes will be overridden. He said some lawmakers who were originally absent intend to vote for the bills during the veto session, and some people have pledged to switch their "no" votes to "yes."
House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, said last week that it would be challenging to rally enough votes to override the vetoes of the agriculture bills.