Minnesota poised to ban smoking

Rep. Tom Huntley
Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, was all smiles after the House passed the smoking ban. Huntley was one of the main architects of the bill.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Once the bill is signed, smokers won't be allowed to light up in any bar, restaurant, bingo hall or bowling alley beginning on October 1. Supporters of the legislation have been pushing for this type of ban for years because they say it will protect the health of workers. That refrain continued on Friday during debates in both the House and Senate.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, says the bill protects the public from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

"This bill will be such a huge leap forward for worker safety and worker health," he said. "It will be an important step that we take on behalf of Minnesotans. It's what citizens and leaders are telling us throughout the state that they would like to have."

But critics of the legislation say the cost is too great. Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said rural Minnesota bars -- and their workers -- will feel the impact quickly.

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"When this gets out to rural Minnesota, the border areas are going to be seeing an exodus of people to the states around them and bars would close," Tomassoni said. "We will eliminate more jobs in rural Minnesota. This is a bill that will do exactly the opposite of what you want it to do. And that is protect workers. It is actually going to eliminate workers jobs."

The Senate passed the measure 43 to 21. The tougher test came in the Minnesota House, which started debating the bill close to midnight.

Throughout the day on Friday, the bill's fate was in doubt. Several House members expressed concern that the bill didn't include enough exemptions allowing smoking in certain settings.

One of the bill's fiercest critics, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was unsuccessful in trying to convince his colleagues to renegotiate the bill with the Senate. The House originally passed a bill with several exemptions which did not survive the conference committee that hammered out differences with the much stricter Senate bill. Rukavina accused the House negotiators of caving in during talks with the Senate.

"I don't know how you fight, but I certainly wouldn't want to be in a fight with you backing me up if that's the hardest you can fight for a provision that made a lot of sense," Rukavina said.

Still, There are a few exemptions remaining in the bill. Smoking would be allowed at a disabled veterans rest camp, in the cabs of farm vehicles and farm buildings and for actors who are performing on stage. Smoking would also be permitted on outdoor patios.

The smoking ban debate divided lawmakers more by geography than party. Several Republicans, especially those who represent the seven-county metro area, supported the bill. Several DFLers, especially those representing the Iron Range, opposed it. The debate pitted the right to breathe clean air against personal freedom.

Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, who supported the ban, suggested to his colleagues that they were on the verge of a historic vote.

"This is the bill that needs to pass this body tonight. This is the bill that sets the slate and sets the standard for Minnesota and for our health for us and our kids and our future," he said.

But Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, said the bill is too restrictive. He said he would have preferred to see more exemptions in the final bill.

"This piece of legislation turned out to be just plain mean," he said. "It's not trying to regulate something or put out options or talk about how to maintain the air or how to protect the workers. No, it's how to be mean to our fellow citizens through oppressive government."

Despite the question mark hanging over the bill, the House passed the bill by a lopsided vote of 81 to 48. Violations will carry fines of up to $300 for smokers and those who allow smoking in their establishments.