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 amount of potatoes, a major Maine crop, that could be served as part of 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 watching the truck-weight issue closely.

Currently, the only expressway that trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds can use is Maine Turnpike. They must use secondary roads elsewhere around the state. Collins and Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont co-authored the provision included in the overall spending bill allowing trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds exemptions to 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 worried 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 of the exemptions for Maine and Vermont still need to win inclusion of the measure as part of the final House-Senate version of the legislation.

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

Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, will be part of the House-Senate conference committee hashing out differences on transportation and agriculture spending issues, so she will have a seat at the table as the fate of the truck-weight and potato provisions are decided in the final House-Senate spending measure.

Congressional leaders hope the Senate and House can reconcile differing versions of the overall spending bill 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.

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

Twitter: MaineTodayDC

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