Ecker vetoes bill to ban smoking in public places Howard may get state's toughest law

June 19, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker vetoed yesterday what would have been the toughest anti-smoking law in the state, but he could soon sign an even tougher one into law.

Mr. Ecker said a bill to ban smoking in all public places except bars and taverns in three years is bad for business. But if the county is going to ban smoking, it should ban it everywhere, Mr. Ecker believes.

It is unfair to exempt bars and taverns from a total smoking ban that would take effect July 1, 1996, Mr. Ecker said.

He is also opposed to a so-called smokers' rights amendment tacked on to the bill just prior to its passage June 7.

The amendment, which was recommended by tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano and approved unanimously by the council, would make it illegal for employers to fire or refuse to hire people who smoke off the job.

"The amendment was produced at the last minute and was not adequately publicized before it was included in the bill," Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Ecker told council members privately that if they delete the tavern exemption and the Bereano amendment from the bill, he will sign it.

Some council members think that amending the bill along the lines Mr. Ecker suggests might be a good idea.

"Did we set up a protected class?" Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, asked rhetorically. "I think we have. That piece really has to come out of the bill.

"I think we can work our way through the bar and tavern part."

Although he voted for the bill, Mr. Drown said he could not support it now unless the smokers' rights clause is removed.

"I'm disappointed, but the veto was not unexpected," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, the chief architect of the bill. "I hope my colleagues will do the right thing and override his veto."

Mr. Gray said he would prepare a revision of the bill that eliminates the Bereano amendment if other council members prefer.

Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said she plans to draft two amendments to the bill -- one eliminating the Bereano amendment, the other eliminating the bar and tavern exemption -- in order to give the council opportunity to discuss them.

Ordinarily, the council would have until July 8 to weigh its response to Mr. Ecker's veto. However, it must deal with the issue Monday, because in order to reconsider a vetoed bill, the council must act on the bill at the next legislative session. The council is holding a legislative session at the administration's request Monday to deal with a budget matter.

"It's unfortunate that [Mr. Ecker] waited" until Friday to veto the bill, Ms. Pendergrass said.

"I know it was not on purpose, but it couldn't come at a worse time, giving us the least amount of time to deal with it."

Mr. Ecker had 10 days in which to veto the bill after he received it. Yesterday was the 10th day.

Mr. Ecker also said the bar exemption would mean that a third of county restaurants would not be covered by the ban.

Mr. Gray disagreed, saying that the bill defines a tavern as one that earns less than 50 percent of its income from the sale of food. Any establishment that earns more from food than from alcohol becomes a restaurant covered by the bill, Mr. Gray said.

Ms. Pendergrass said restaurant owners in her district believe that some competitors with tavern licenses don't include nonalcoholic soda sales in the food portion of their operation in order to stay within the food-to-alcohol ratio.

Mr. Ecker's veto followed the advice given to him by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said Marcia Harris, the executive vice president.

"We met with him on Tuesday and told him the Bereano amendment was creating a special class and that as business people, we had real concerns about that," she said.

"I don't think the council meant to put smokers in the same category with women, minorities and the disabled."

Restaurateurs were also "concerned, confused and disheartened" about the tavern exemption, Ms. Harris said, adding that concern must be expressed for bartenders exposed to second-hand smoke as well as waiters and waitresses.

The restaurant association began lobbying for a statewide smoking ban after the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report saying secondary smoke is a Class A carcinogen, Ms. Harris said.

"It became an employee issue rather than a customer issue," she said.

"We would prefer not to have county-specific legislation, but we have three years to work on a statewide basis [before the county law takes effect]. I would hope the outcome would be the same."

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