WASHINGTON — Potatoes will still be part of the nation’s school lunch program and trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds would be allowed back on all Maine interstates under overall spending legislation approved 69-30 Tuesday by the Senate.

The potato battle began when proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture restrictions on servings of starchy vegetables threatened to drastically reduce the use of potatoes, a major Maine crop, in federal school lunches and breakfasts. There would have been no potatoes at breakfast and a limited amount at lunchtime.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and allies including GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, led the fight for a provision to keep potatoes on the menu without restrictions.

Maine was the sixth-largest potato-producing state in the nation in 2010, according to the Maine Potato Board, based in Presque Isle. Maine farmers grow about 55,000 acres of white potatoes, and sold $140 million worth in 2009.

Mainers also have been closely watching the truck weight issue.

Currently, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds can use only the Maine Turnpike and side roads elsewhere around the state. Collins and Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont co-authored a provision in the overall spending bill giving exemptions to trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds so they can use all interstates in Maine and Vermont.

The truck weight measure has been long-sought by the Maine congressional delegation, state officials and many local residents who don’t want about big rigs banned from the highway rumbling through intersections and past homes, businesses and schools.

For a year, the heavier trucks were largely absent from side roads. But last December, a federal pilot program allowing access to all Maine interstates lapsed.

The truck weight provision is not in the House version of the spending bill, so proponents need to get the exemptions for Maine and Vermont included in the final House-Senate version.

The House spending bill does have a similar measure opposing the potato restrictions, but the House and Senate still will have to reconcile the two versions.

Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, will be part of the conference committee hashing out the final House-Senate spending measure, so she will have a seat at the table as the truck weight and potato provisions are considered.

Congressional leaders hope the Senate and House can reconcile the differing versions before Nov. 18, when a temporary 2012 spending measure expires.

Snowe also is a supporter of the truck weight proposal, and Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, back the truck weight and potato provisions as well.


MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]