Senate panel weakens smoking ban bill

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota bars could have some breathing room before new statewide smoking restrictions begin after a key Senate committee Monday weakened the proposal.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota bars could have some breathing room before new statewide smoking restrictions begin after a key Senate committee Monday weakened the proposal.

The bill as amended Monday would pre-empt local ordinances, allowing bars to allow smoking until installing air-handling equipment. That means bars in areas that now ban smoking could allow customers to light up once again - if only temporarily.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, an opponent of a statewide smoking ban, succeeded in convincing the Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee to amend the ban, over objections of ban supporters.

Tomassoni's amendment allows bars time to install air-handling equipment to take care of the smoke. Businesses that earn 40 percent or less profits in alcohol sales would have until 2009 to install the equipment, and bars that make 80 percent of their profits by alcohol sales would not have to install the air equipment until 2014.

The amendment also would give state law priority over local ordinances. That means communities that already have smoking bans -- and more than half of Minnesota's population lives in those areas -- would have to accept the less stringent state law.


Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, who wrote the Senate smoking ban bill, said she is disappointed the committee changed her measure. However, she added, "it has a long ways to go."

Monday's 9-7 committee vote on Tomassoni's amendment was the first major chink taken out of Sheran's bill after three days of debate. The measure has several committee stops remaining before a full Senate vote.

House committees also are looking at a smoking ban plan.

Tomassoni and other northern Minnesota legislators presented amendment after amendment, trying to weaken the smoking ban.

Even the one that passed could hurt bars.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said air-handling equipment probably is too expensive for small bars to install.

Many bars that now show little profit would close under his plan, Tomassoni said, but "it gives them an option."

If, as Skoe said, air-handling equipment is too expensive, Tomassoni admitted his amendment may do no good.


Sheran, and health experts who testified last week, said evidence shows that air-handling equipment cannot make a bar's air safe -- and that is the goal of her bill.

Besides the air-handling equipment argument, smoking ban supporters objected to Tomassoni's successful effort to make state law over-ride local ordinances.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said 57 percent of Minnesota's population already is governed by smoking bans stronger than Sheran's original bill. Any changes in the bill would endanger Minnesotans' health, he added.

But Tomassoni said rules vary too much. "We have a checkerboard of laws across the state now."

If a statewide smoking ban is to pass, it should be the same for everyone, he argued.

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, failed in his attempt to give an income tax deduction to bar owners to make up for the cost of installing air-handling equipment to follow the law.

That proposal still could be discussed at a future committee hearing.



Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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