“Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey.  Along came a spider, who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.”  Well, Miss Muffet has a new problem today because a California legislator has decided to spin his own spider’s web with a bill setting the price for curds and whey.  If it passes, the next thing you know Miss Muffet will pay a lot more for her meal, and even for a cheese sandwich.

This new legislative battle over curds and whey deals with the arcane issue of milk pricing, specifically dairy farmers who are unhappy with the prices set by the Department of Food and Agriculture for milk that is processed into cheese.  The association that represents milk producers, Western United Dairymen, has enlisted the help of Assemblyman Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) to carry Assembly Bill 31 giving the legislature rather than the Department, the authority to set prices for what’s called Class 4B milk, the milk used to make cheese.

Since the New Deal, state and federal governments have regulated milk prices through what are called milk marketing orders.  California has had its own milk marketing orders since 1935 and the dairymen are not happy that the Department of Food and Agriculture has not set the 4B milk price high enough to suit them.

So they have come to the legislature and said that you fine legislators should be setting the price.  It seems that hungry cows are eating more these days and feed prices have risen.  That makes the milk they produce more expensive and since 43 percent of all the milk produced by California dairies goes into making cheese, they want an order that will increase those regulated prices.

Of course this will hit Miss Muffet’s pocket book, and everyone else’s.  In making cheese, milk is separated into curds, the solids, and whey, the liquid.  According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, AB 31 “would provide a specific formula that the secretary (of Food and Agriculture) would be required to use to establish the price for class 4b market milk that includes a dry whey value factor that is no less than 80 percent of the dry whey value used in federal milk marketing orders in establishing minimum producer prices.”  So the bill raises the price of Miss Muffet’s whey, and thus raises the price of cheese.  And California cheese competes with cheese produced in other states, like cheese-head happy Wisconsin.  To no one’s surprise, the bill is strongly opposed by the California cheese industry.

This bill could pass because the legislature likes nothing more than arbitrating between special interests.  What does the legislature know about milk pricing?  Well, actually nothing, but that seems not to matter.  This is a classic case of two special interests battling over an arcane but financially important (to them) issue and just the kind of thing that the California Legislature, with too much free time on its hands, loves to get into.

The dairymen think they will defeat the cheese processors in this dust up because, as their association’s chairman is quoted as saying, “Fortunately they’re not as good at the Capitol as we are.”  He may be right given the $80,000 in campaign contributions the Western United Dairymen spread around the capital in 2012.

Rather than dealing with the major issues that affect California, such as how do you create jobs in the state with the third highest national unemployment, legislators instead will be weighing in on curds and whey.  Having little to no knowledge of issues in cheese making, legislators are likely to decide this matter not on the basis of good public policy, but on the basis of which of these two interest groups can better serve their needs when election time rolls around. With legislators now setting prices, surely we will see the rise of a Cheese PAC, and a Milk PAC, and even Miss Muffet will need her own PAC to influence legislative thinking as they debate what level of prices to set.

That in itself is sufficient reason for legislators to reject this bill or the governor to veto it.  Perhaps the 78-year-old system of California milk prices ought to be reformed but at least the prices are set by experts at Food and Agriculture not by politicians.

Miss Muffet’s curds and whey were actually cottage cheese, and the tuffet she sat on was a grass mound, and if the legislature will get out of the way, maybe she can finish her lunch.