Exemptions a sticking point between House, Senate bills

Smoking ban

March 27, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,sun reporter

Compromise needed for smoking bills Two days after the House of Delegates passed a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants, the Maryland Senate approved a similar measure yesterday - leaving negotiators to hash out differences over what kind of exemptions might be granted.

"The gap is not that big between these bills," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the Senate measure.

The two main sticking points are whether to exempt private clubs, and whether the state or local officials should decide when to issue hardship waivers to businesses that demonstrate the ban has harmed them financially. The House would have the state health department decide who receives a waiver, while the Senate leaves that decision to county health officials.

Unless one side concedes, the House and Senate would send a handful of representatives to a conference committee to develop a compromise, which must then be passed in both chambers.

"I don't want to draw any lines in the sand because that makes it much more difficult to reach consensus," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Economic Matters Committee.

The Senate voted 33 to 13 to back a ban that extends a prohibition on smoking in indoor public places to bars and restaurants, which were not covered when the state prohibited smoking in most workplaces more than a decade ago. The House on Saturday approved a smoking ban by a wide margin.

With only two weeks left in the General Assembly session, legislative leaders expressed confidence that an agreement could be reached quickly. Both versions of the ban would take effect at the beginning of next year.

The House and Senate votes in recent days followed months of fractious debate over where people can smoke. They also marked a victory for health advocates, who have fought for the ban for the past four years, only to see bills die in committee.

"We are one step closer to protecting the health of all Maryland employees including those that work in restaurants and bars," said Bonita Pennino, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society. "It has been a building process, and each year we've been working on this bill, we've garnered more and more support."

Among the supporters is Gov. Martin O'Malley, who reached out to lawmakers and provided a pivotal push at the committee level. O'Malley, who endorsed the bill after the Baltimore City Council approved its own anti-smoking measure last month, has said he would sign a statewide ban if it reaches his desk.

Five Maryland counties - Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot - and Washington, D.C., also have enacted smoking bans.

While Baltimore City's pending law allows for hardship waivers for businesses, most of the counties do not. They might have to pass local ordinances to specifically address the issue. Both the House and Senate measures would allow localities to have more stringent laws on their books.

The measure has been among the most lobbied in recent years, according to lawmakers.

Health advocates mobilized rallies and frequently cited a report last year from Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona that the public health hazards of secondhand smoke are "indisputable." The opposing forces were largely led by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, a lobbying group that argued the ban would drive smoking customers away and put small pubs and taverns out of business.

The most contentious debate still to come may be whether to exempt private clubs, which the Senate wants to do but the House doesn't. The clubs are defined as nonprofit organizations for social, educational, patriotic, political or athletic purposes, but during debate lawmakers mostly cited veterans' groups, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, as the ones that need an exemption.

Sen. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, said the veterans' clubs serve as gathering places in rural areas of the state. While he voted against the smoking ban, arguing that localities and even individual establishments should decide whether to go smoke-free, he was an outspoken proponent of the club exemption.

"It's another example of the government telling average citizens, and I'm an average citizen, what to do," said Edwards, who says he quit smoking cigarettes 30 years ago but still smokes an occasional cigar. "If you don't want to be around smoke, then don't go into these places."

Opponents of the exemption say the purpose of the ban is to protect people from the dangers of secondhand smoke, including those who enter private clubs. And some members agree. Jim Wade, a bartender at an American Legion hall in Annapolis, said the smoke gets so thick sometimes that people leave soon after the Friday night dinner because of it.

"Secondhand smoke is bad for you; there's enough history out there that tells you that," Wade said. "I hope the ban goes through."

Many lawmakers also brought personal stories to the debate.

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