Tuesday, May 18, 1999

Sugar growers brace for
legislative assault

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON -- The annual campaign to eliminate federal price supports for sugar growers was kicked off here today as the usual assortment of free-traders, environmentalists and consumer advocates proposed an end to the controversial program.

"The sugar program keeps the price of sugar in the United States artificially high," said Rep. Dan Miller, R-Florida, who today introduced a bill that would phase out price-support loans to sugar growers over four years.

Miller and his supporters say the sugar program also helps destroy Florida's Everglades by encouraging sugar planters and hurts efforts to lower foreign trade barriers.

"While this is a sweet deal for sugar producers, it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of taxpayers, consumers, American workers and the environment," he said.

As usual, Miller's proposal did not go unchallenged. The sugar industry immediately condemned it as ruinous for farmers.

The bill "would displace U.S. sugar production with subsidized foreign production, jeopardize the 420,000 American jobs in 40 states tied to the . . . industry, and wreak havoc on the many rural economies heavily dependent on farming," said Joseph Terrell of the American Sugar Alliance, the industry's main lobbying group.

"I don't see how this could do anything but hurt the industry, in Hawaii and everywhere else."

Hawaii's sugar industry, while dwindling, still employs an estimated 2,000 workers.

In recent years, Hawaii's sugar producers have split on proposals in Congress to eliminate the federal supports. This year, the situation is cloudier.

Kauai-based Gay & Robinson Inc. is a member of the American Sugar Alliance and strongly supports price supports.

The isles' largest grower, Alexander & Baldwin Inc., has favored eliminating supports, in part because the California refinery it owned would benefit from cheaper sugar.

But A&B in the past year sold off 60 percent of the California company that owned the refinery.

A&B has yet to take a position on this year's bill.

The House came within five votes of abolishing the sugar program in 1996, but similar proposals have failed by increasing margins since then.

Backers of this year's effort are counting on free-trade arguments to boost their chances. But opponents predict yet another failure.

"American farmers are in a crisis situation now, and (this bill) would kick them while they're down," said Jack Roney, chief economist for the American Sugar Alliance.

Roney called the proposed legislation an attempt by the food industry to boost profits by paying less for sugar and not passing the savings on to consumers, and said Congress "now recognizes this effort for what it is."

Hawaii's four-person congressional delegation has unanimously opposed eliminating sugar price supports in the past, and is not expected to change its tune this year.

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