Wednesday, March 02, 2005

House smoking ban bill killed in committee

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:32 PM |  

My side won. I should be happy. I’m not.

On a voice vote, the House Commerce Committee voted not to pass the house version of a statewide smoking ban bill out of committee.

I wish I could say that the Commerce Committee killed the bill because members recognized that property rights are fundamental rights. I wish I could say that the Commerce Committee killed the bill because it rejected bad science. I wish I could say the Committee recognized that the bill exceed state authority. But I can’t. Hell, I sat through the two-and-a-half-hour session and I haven’t the faintest notion why the committee rejected the bill.

Supporters of the bill trotted out a usual lineup of well-credentialed physicians and medical experts to testify about the horrors wrought on society by secondhand smoke. In many cases they simply reiterated data that has long ago been refuted as exaggerated or dubious.

Of the medical testimony, only Marc Manley of Blue Cross Blue Shield spoke to cost issues that were appropriate for this committee. He made a case for the health care costs associated with secondhand smoke, presenting numbers that only a gullible idiot or a medical/mathematical genius could accept without question. There were no questions from the committee.

Likewise, those opposed to a statewide smoking ban were the not unfamiliar representatives of “Big Hospitality,” Minnesotans Against Smoking Bans and small business and bar owners.

For the first time, I thought those opposing the bill did a better job of presentation that those favoring the bill.

Dave Siegel of Hospitality Minnesota gave the best presentation of the day by skillfully weaving the rights and health issues. James Algeo gave a great presentation on the negative impact of a statewide smoking ban on charitable gambling. Mark Wernimont with Global Air Filtration Systems, Inc., provided the best science of the day disputing the danger of secondhand smoke.

I wish I could say these presentations moved the Committee. I can’t.

Like other Committee meetings I’ve sat through, this one appeared to be settled before the theater of testimony began. Little if anything new was mentioned in the public testimonies, so why was the bill killed in this committee and not before?

Twice during the hearing bill sponsor Doug Meslow got tied up in the illogic of the smoking ban proposition. The first time, he had to hem and haw his way around a rationale for not protecting employees of tobacco shops from secondhand smoke with assumptions about how they chose to work in that industry and were likely smokers anyway but that the same logic didn’t apply to restaurant workers because . . . well . . . just because.

The second time he had to admit that the projection of one of his witnesses that people would quit smoking because of the ban probably wasn’t as great as stated -- this in response to a question about tax revenue for cigarettes going down.

More strange, there was little economic data presented either for or against the bill. At the previous hearing on the bill in the House Health Policy and Finance Committee, Meslow was asked if there was a fiscal note on the bill. When he replied “no,” it was suggested one be prepared. There was no fiscal note offered before the Commerce Committee. One would think the Commerce Committee might be interested in such stuff.

Perhaps I should just sit back and rejoice that for whatever reason, today the good guys won. But without any kind of definitive reason why the ban was defeated, there is no rest.

“Nothing is dead in the legislature until it adjourns,” the bill’s co-sponsor Representative Ron Latz said. Great.

The Pioneer Press afternoon update calls the committee hearing a “setback” for the smoking ban. After the hearing, cameras and reporters crowded around Meslow and Latz to get their reactions. Bar and restaurant owners slipped out of the hearing room unbothered. Who cares what they think?

But it’s not over for those folks. In addition to some resurrection of the House bill, they have to worry about the smoking ban bill working its way through the Senate. And of course, there’s always next year. Not to mention local bans.

So instead of operating their businesses, these small business owners have naught to look forward to but many more fruitless days wandering about the capitol (instead of minding the store) in search of hollow victories like they won today. Doesn’t sound much like the American dream of running your own business, does it?