Wednesday, December 28, 2005

COLUMN -- Local uprisings don't argue for Minnesota smoking ban

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:34 AM |  

Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2005

When Peter McLaughlin, the swing vote among Hennepin County commissioners, voted to support the amendment providing a smoking ban exemption to private clubs and some bars, the business owners encamped outside the boardroom whooped and cheered — even those still under local restrictions in Minneapolis and Bloomington.

A word of caution: When you make a deal with the devil, don't be surprised if it goes to hell.

In a carefully parsed statement, McLaughlin expressed empathy for bar owners who for months had testified the ban was hurting their businesses while a vote on the ban rollback was delayed for months until after McLaughlin's failed mayoral run. Not to confuse leadership with politics, McLaughlin opted to use his post-election sensitivity to serve his own end.

McLaughlin made clear that his vote was not a flip-flop from his previous position in favor of a statewide ban. He saw that vote, at that time, as the best means to achieve a greater purpose. The dominos, however, did not fall, he noted; a statewide ban didn't happen. His rollback vote is but another strategy for getting to a statewide ban.

Give the devil his due. A statewide ban limiting smoking to establishments that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from liquor is finding favor among struggling tavern owners. At a St. Paul City Council hearing, prominent city tavern owners lobbied to delay implementing a total smoking ban in the city, allowing time to push for statewide 50/50 legislation.

Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, one of several local business people I met with at O'Gara's Bar and Grill, didn't mince words about the ethical bind a 50/50 proposal imposes on St. Paul and Minneapolis business owners.

"Supporting a 50/50 solution forces people to make bad ethical decisions," Farrell said, shaking his head. "I have to go to legislators from rural Minnesota and ask them to pass a law that will kill mom and pop restaurants and coffee shops in outstate Minnesota to save my guys in the Cities. I have to go to Republicans and ask for a ban that violates the core principle of local control. We're in a position where for my guys to survive, I have to ask legislators to vote against their values and their constituents' interests."

That's what government has become, the cause of what Hans Lofgren of Eastside Beverage Distributors labeled a civil war among tavern owners and communities. Lacking support for a statewide total ban, groups backed by state tobacco money and foundation grants attempted to pick off communities one-by-one, pitting community against community and business against business. To some extent, that renting of government power is succeeding.

"Level playing field" is the most common phrase heard from bar owners dealing with smoking bans. One need look no further than Northeast Minneapolis, adjacent to ban-free Anoka County, to see the negative impact of a hodge-podge of smoking ban legislation. But does the chaos of local control argue for implementation of a statewide smoking ban?

Absolutely not.

That's easy for me to say. I'm not looking down the barrel of a government gun threatening my livelihood. Perhaps it's a bit selfish of me to hope that tavern owners refuse to capitulate and stand up for liberty-loving Minnesotans. But now is not the time to go quietly into the night.

The Hennepin County rollback vote is frightening to those who would use big government to further their own ends. The rollback demonstrates the power of local politics. The chaos caused by local regulations makes it immediately apparent that an ordinance has unintended consequences. It provides opportunity for local interests to rise up and fight ill-conceived laws as was done in Hennepin County.

I have been a strong supporter of business owners hurt by the smoking ban, but I cannot follow them to the dark side of the debate. A statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants — 50/50 or total — is as wrong on principle today as it was last year. Unless the smoking ban debate is pushed to its logical conclusion — establishment of issue-neutral criteria for determining when a health issue rises to the level of a public health issue necessitating government intervention — then all the struggle will have been in vain, and the devil of big government will come calling again, and again and again.