Victory Cigars for All!

April 02, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Call it a smoke-screen, smoke and mirrors or even smoke getting in their eyes: Tobacco bans have been front-and-center in political Annapolis this session.

What's been on display has not been pretty to watch -- legislating in a democracy often resembles sausage-making, after all. It has, though, presented a classic case of how our system works.

No one ended up with precisely what he or she wanted. The ban-all-smoking advocates are mad because the original no-exceptions workplace-smoking prohibition didn't survive. The smokers-have-a-right to-kill-themselves advocates are furious that government would dare impinge on their freedom to puff wherever they'd like.

Legislators are upset the governor would not bend more to their wishes to carve out larger exemptions for smokers and businesses. And the governor is disappointed because he had to backtrack on a pledge -- and a personal commitment -- to a tough smoking ban.

Since everyone is mad at the final outcome, something good must have happened.

It began with a case of bureaucratic overreach. William Fogle, the former licensing and regulation secretary in the Schaefer administration, decided to do administratively what Maryland's legislature wouldn't: Ban all smoking in the workplace because of its threat to the health of workers.

Gov. Parris Glendening inherited this regulatory mandate. When tobacco boosters lost an appeal to the courts, the matter landed squarely in his lap. He decided to support the ban, egged on by his fanatically anti-smoking health secretary, Martin Wasserman.

Legislators saw things differently. Many were infuriated with the Fogle regulation because it was an end-run around the General Assembly. Such a far-reaching ban, they felt, should be decided by elected officials, not a bureaucrat.

Too, many legislators were hearing from tavern owners and restaurateurs who feared grievous harm to their businesses. The tourism and travel industries chimed in, warning of lost conventions and trouble attracting folks to Maryland sites and cities. The ever-powerful tobacco lobby, which has more than its share of friendly legislators, nudged lawmakers from tobacco-growing Southern Maryland.

Personal habits played a role. Heavy smokers such as Commerce and Government Matters Chairman Gerald Curran and House Speaker Casper Taylor weren't about to let some bureaucrat dictate to them.

All these factors coalesced in a drive to repeal the worst aspects of the Fogle regulation. Had legislators thought they could get away with it, they might have tried to erase the new regulations altogether. But this is one public-health issue that can't be ignored.

What emerged was a bill with broad loopholes for taverns, dining establishments and tourist, travel and entertainment facilities.

This didn't please Mr. Glendening. He believed his veto threat gave him powerful leverage. Instead, it exposed his weakness. The new governor has few loyalists to turn to in the legislature. He couldn't come close to preventing an override of his veto.

So, slowly he started to compromise. But Mr. Taylor and others remained frustrated because the governor didn't seem willing to meet them halfway. He gave a little more in the final days, though, and Democratic lawmakers decided to save him from a humiliating defeat. A revised workplace-smoking-ban bill -- with a number of exemptions -- was quickly passed and signed into law.

In the end, Annapolis came up with an innovative step to slow the state's high cancer rate and greatly reduce the dangers of second-hand smoke in work areas. The governor averted a humiliating veto override and claimed credit for victory. Legislative leaders, as they have done throughout this General Assembly session, cobbled together a compromise without much help from the executive branch.

It wasn't neat and tidy, but somehow the job got done.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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