Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged yesterday to sign legislation banning smoking at Maryland restaurants and bars if it reaches his desk, setting the stage for debate in the General Assembly, where intense lobbying campaigns are under way.
Legislators in Annapolis will take up a statewide smoking ban after the Baltimore City Council approved a ban Monday, joining several other jurisdictions around the state that have passed similar measures prohibiting smoking in indoor public places. O'Malley had been noncommittal on the issue since taking office.
"He feels that the public health data is conclusive, and a statewide ban would significantly improve the health of Maryland citizens," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley. "As mayor, he didn't support a city ban because he didn't want to disproportionately impact Baltimore businesses. As governor, he's always indicated he would keep an open mind and work with the General Assembly."
But passage in the State House could face an uphill battle, as legislators on two powerful committees appear to be nearly split on a ban. The committees must approve the measure before it moves to the full chambers, where legislative leaders say it likely has the votes to pass.
"Right now, the bill's fate is uncertain," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, which will consider the ban. "The proponents are smelling a real opportunity for passage in the state after the city's action ... but as far as what it means down here, that remains to be seen."
Supporters say a statewide ban makes sense because it would put all bars and restaurants on an equal footing. Opponents say passage of a ban in the city -- and previously in Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties -- proves that local jurisdictions can handle the matter.
Across the country, 16 states and hundreds of localities have approved similar bans, covering slightly more than half the population of the United States.
Lobbyists for the restaurant and tobacco industries that oppose the idea, as well as health-care advocates and other proponents, have been busy lobbying Maryland lawmakers. Now much of the political jockeying will be focused on the 34 members of the key House and Senate committees.
Hearings are scheduled for next month in the House Economic Matters Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. A smoking ban has failed for four consecutive sessions. This year, the political calculus has changed because of the turnover of members in the November election and because a different House committee is considering the bill than in the past.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and chairman of the Finance Committee, said it appears the vote on the 10-member panel could be 5-5. He said he would cast a tie-breaking vote to send the bill to the Senate.
The House committee also appears to be nearly split, and as of yesterday, a few members said they were undecided and would wait to hear testimony at the hearing. One, Del. Ruth M. Kirk, a Baltimore Democrat, said she had stayed neutral until the City Council vote. Now, she said, she supports the statewide ban.
Opponents have come from both sides of the aisle, including Del. Donna Stifler, a Harford County Republican and Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat. Both say it's a matter of consumer rights.
Legislators say they have received dozens, if not hundreds, of phone calls and e-mails from constituents. They also have been contacted by lobbyists for the American Cancer Society and feted at dinners by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which took committee members this month to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse for a $5,500 affair.
Davis compared the intensity of lobbying to the flurry of activity over BGE's plan last year to raise electricity rates 72 percent for more than 1 million residential customers. That led to a special session of the General Assembly and a plan to mitigate the increase. The smoking ban "ranks with some of the most heavily lobbied issues down here," he said.
Among those staying out of the fray are big tobacco manufacturers, including Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker, according to Annapolis lobbyists for those companies. Philip Morris has worked to polish its image with health-related campaigns, such as one to reduce teen smoking.
But another tobacco lobby, the Maryland Association of Tobacco & Candy Distributors, is fighting the legislation and has employed lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano. "I've been working this thing like crazy," he said recently.
Bereano says cigarettes are a "lawful product," and that smoking is a "lawful activity." He said of the ban proponents: "They want to run other people's lives."