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February 29, 2012

Indiana Senate approves diluted state smoking ban

Lobbyists say bill is ‘unacceptable’

INDIANAPOLIS — For all the bluster a statewide smoking ban sparked at the beginning of the 2012 legislative session, the version Indiana lawmakers may end up approving seems little more than a wisp of smoke.

The Senate approved a statewide ban Wednesday for the first time in its history, with 13 Democrats joining 16 Republicans for a 29-21 vote. But the proposal passed hardly resembles the one the House has approved six times in recent years.

“The bill has so many exemptions it’s unacceptable,” said Amanda Estridge, Indiana lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, which has opposed smoking bans in the past for not covering enough businesses.

Senators added exemptions for bars, charity gambling operations, veterans’ homes and nursing homes. They also expanded exemptions the House had added for private clubs, such as the VFW and American Legion, and the state’s gambling industry, which would be protected statewide from local restrictions.

By the end of the exercise, Senate supporters said the “horrible bill” was the best they could do and will seek to salvage it in final negotiations with House lawmakers.

Indiana’s legislative leaders have said they plan to end the 2012 session March 9, which gives negotiators just over a week to come up with a compromise.

Senate Democratic Leader Vi Simpson, of Bloomington, said the proposed ban was a health issue.

“When I’m around somebody who smokes, I have to breathe that air. ... It’s shared air. And we know the effects of secondhand smoke,” she said.

But the additional exemptions secured critical support among senators who had previously opposed a ban. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, held himself out as the prime example, saying the exemption for bars made him change his mind.

“For the first time, I’m going to support a smoking ban today,” he said.

Long said he felt strongly that people ought to be able to work in a smoke-free environment but also wanted to see smoking allowed in bars. He said that only adults are allowed to enter bars, and adults have a choice about being exposed to smoke that children don’t.

Roughly two months ago, the ban appeared to have significant momentum. Gov. Mitch Daniels included a statewide smoking ban in his final legislative agenda, and Senate lawmakers said it was time for the issue to get a vote.

But with the ban in trouble, Gary Democratic Rep. Charlie Brown, who co-authored the tougher House proposal with Cicero Republican Rep. Eric Turner, said Daniels needs to begin lobbying for the measure.

“We’re going to have to rely heavily on the governor, the governor has got to get more active in this thing, if in fact he has a keen interest in public policy on smoke-free air,” Brown said shortly after the Senate voted.

Daniels’ has had an uncharacteristically light presence around the Statehouse this session, often going weeks at a time without scheduling a public appearance in Indianapolis. Instead, he’s been traveling around the state and the nation. Earlier in his tenure, Daniels was more of a fixture, especially when pushing major priorities, such as the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road.

A Daniels spokeswoman said he was happy the bill was one step closer to reaching his desk for a signature, but did not answer questions about the governor’s lobbying efforts.

As in previous years, arguments over exemptions have threatened to trip up the measure. Several senators who testified before Wednesday’s vote said they were no longer sure what the bill stood for because of rampant exemptions.

Most opponents, such as Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, and Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, argued that they philosophically oppose the government telling them what they can do in their private life.

“Next we’ll be telling people how many Snickers bars they can buy in a year,” Boots said.

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