Maryland legislators are moving at breakneck speed to weaken the state's new ban on workplace smoking before it takes effect March 27.
Three-fifths of the state's senators and delegates have put their names on a proposal that would exempt restaurants, bars and hotels from the ban. That is enough support to override an expected gubernatorial veto.
Hearings begin today in the House -- an extraordinary feat by Annapolis standards, considering that the measure was introduced only six days ago.
Asked whether the legislation is on a fast track, Del. Ronald A. Guns glanced at his lighted cigarette and replied, "Does a cigarette smoke?"
Mr. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, which will hold today's 1 p.m. hearing. The Senate hearing is Friday at 1 p.m. in the Finance Committee.
As written, the ban is one of the strongest in the nation. It forbids smoking in almost every public and private indoor workplace, including offices, factories, bars, restaurants and hotels. It allows smoking only in tobacco shops, sealed employee lounges with separate ventilation systems and work vehicles occupied by one person.
The anti-smoking regulation is scheduled to take effect March 27, which, along with the April 10 adjournment of the legislature, is prompting the haste to push through the exemptions.
"We only have a 30-day window of opportunity to enact a change in the regulations, or else they go into effect unilaterally, without the action of the elected officials of the House of Delegates or the Senate," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.
The ban was adopted by state occupational safety and health regulators, not the General Assembly.
The issue has put legislators at odds with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has threatened to veto any bill that substantially weakens the ban.
But lawmakers are prepared. Del. John S. Arnick, a Democrat from Dundalk, and Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, are sponsoring identical bills with enough sponsors to override a veto.
The House measure has 85 sponsors, including Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a smoker and former tavern owner from Cumberland. The 29 sponsors of the Senate version include Mr. Miller and Minority Leader John A. Cade, an Anne Arundel County Republican.
Both bills would exempt bars, hotels, convention centers, racetracks, clubs and restaurants with liquor licenses from the ban, provided they have no-smoking sections.
Eric Gally, president of Smoke Free Maryland, an anti-smoking group, said, "We're extremely disappointed that some members of the legislature have decided that the health and well-being of Maryland citizens aren't valuable."
Although a staunch foe of smoking, Mr. Glendening has not ignored legislators' interest in modifying the ban. He said yesterday that he was working with Mr. Arnick and other legislators to determine whether a compromise was possible.
The governor said he would be willing to sign a bill allowing restaurants, bars and taverns to set up smoking sections if they met the rigorous requirements of the regulation. The sections would have to be enclosed and have separate ventilation systems, just like the smoking lounges allowed under the ban.
Critics say such smoking rooms would be too costly for businesses to install.