Citywide smoking ban stalled

Proponent sends bill back to committee

council might reconsider matter next month

December 05, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

In a major setback for Baltimore's proposed smoking ban, its chief proponent unexpectedly yanked the legislation into a committee to shield it from a vote last night - a move supporters said was intended to save the controversial bill from defeat or being weakened.

City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who said the bill faced several hostile amendments at a City Council meeting yesterday, made the last-minute decision to pull the measure back into a committee at least until next month, when he said the legislation might have a better chance.

"This bill is not dead by any means," Curran said shortly after the council voted unanimously to return the bill to the five-member Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, which he chairs. "It's just a pause."

However, the dynamic at City Hall next year is uncertain, and the potential for such a proposal to advance, as many members of the council seek higher office, is unclear.

Anti-smoking advocates who have been lobbying council members, meanwhile, are expected to redirect their attention to Annapolis to push for a statewide smoking ban.

Similar debates have played out in cities across the country and usually pit owners of small restaurants and bars against health advocates. Opponents argue the ban will affect business, while supporters say patrons and servers should be protected from secondhand smoke.

Fourteen of the nation's 20 largest cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, have imposed smoking restrictions on restaurateurs or are covered under a statewide ban. The remaining six, including Baltimore, Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., have not approved a ban.

Late yesterday, Curran appeared to have the votes required to clear the ban through the procedural vote - especially if, as expected, many who oppose the legislation abstained rather than openly voted against it. But Curran said he was concerned about the possibility of last-minute amendments to weaken the bill, as well as the timing of a final vote.

Like the General Assembly, the City Council holds "second reader" votes on legislation approved in committee. To advance, bills need a majority of those voting "yes" or "no," meaning that members who abstain, or "pass," are not considered.

Theoretically, if 14 of the council's 15 members abstained and one voted yes, the bill would have advanced.

If Curran had managed to get the smoking ban over the second-reader hurdle, he faced a tougher battle on the final vote. Curran - a former smoker who has pushed the measure for more than a year - needs eight votes for final approval, regardless of abstentions, and that threshold has been difficult to achieve.

Curran said the ban could be considered again on second-reader as soon as Jan. 22.

But by then, City Council President Sheila Dixon, who has voiced her support for a ban, will no longer vote on the council, because she will serve out the remainder of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's mayoral term. Also, the council will likely include a new member to replace Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, who is expected to replace Dixon as president.

"The fact of the matter is that we're just going to keep working to shore up the support so that we can pass a strong bill," said Johanna Neumann, a policy advocate with Maryland PIRG, a group that has lobbied heavily in favor of the ban.

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, could not be reached for comment late yesterday. The group has fought against the legislation, arguing that it could be especially devastating for small corner bars and restaurants.

Maryland counties with bans include Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot.

Baltimore's proposal would prohibit smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs. Cigar bars, outdoor seating areas of restaurants, private clubs and certain tobacco shops would be exempt if owners apply for a waiver.

Late last month, the council added an amendment that could have a significant impact on the legislation - a waiver that would allow businesses to be exempt if they could demonstrate that the ban would cause "undue financial hardship." The legislation allows the city health commissioner, currently Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, to set the rules for how, and why, waivers would be granted.

After yesterday's vote, advocates said they were disappointed but that they would not give up.

"I don't consider the bill dead," said Kari Appler, director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition. "Baltimore may be slow to adopt, but Baltimore is going to be smoke-free."

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