Sponsor of statewide smoking ban says House leaders are blocking a vote to protect some members from political fallout

By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

The bill for a statewide smoking ban has stalled, with the prime sponsor saying House leaders are blocking a vote to protect members who have told the sponsor they would vote for it, but have told the leaders they don’t want a vote because they don’t want it to be used against them in their re-election bids.

The prime sponsor, Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, told Kentucky Health News on Thursday, Feb. 27 that she thinks the bill would pass if Speaker Greg Stumbo would let it be called up for a vote, but he is protecting members who fear how the issue will play politically.

“Wrong,” Stumbo replied in an email to KHN Sunday night. “Others in leadership have problems.” In another message Monday morning, he said “I’m for [the] bill; may be the only member of leadership supporting it; so you figure out why it’s not being called. I told her in all my years as majority floor leader, I never refused to call a bill unless a majority of leadership opposed doing it.”

The other leaders of the House Democratic majority are Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Morehead, who calls bills up for votes; Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville; Majority Whip Tommy Thompson of Owensboro; Democratic Caucus Chair Sannie Overly of Paris.

Westrom told Ryan Alessi of cn|2 that the leaders are divided on the issue. “It depends on what member of leadership you talk to,” she said. “It’s just a little bit schizophrenic right now.”

Adkins said in a prepared statement, “This bill is being handled like other bills that are high
profile. It has been House leadership’s long-standing position to vet these
kinds of bills to our members through a vote count before they are brought to
the House floor. As of Friday the votes for passage were not there. We will
continue to monitor the count as we move forward in the session.”

Stumbo, who has said he supports House Bill 173, said Feb. 26 that he wasn’t counting votes but sensed that the bill wasn’t “quite there yet” but was within “striking distance” of passage.

The leaders kept the bill in the House Rules Committee for the maximum five days allowed by House rules, then posted it for passage on Feb. 14.

On Feb. 18, Westrom and the bill’s main Republican sponsor, Rep. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville, filed a floor amendment to exempt electronic cigarettes, private clubs and cigar bars. Adams told Alessi that has helped get Republican votes and allay some legislators’ concerns about over-regulation of private property.

“When you open up that private property for public purpose, government always involves itself,” she said. “This does not cost a business owner any money.”

Adams said the larger issue is Kentucky’s poor health and what it costs the state. “This is the only proposal that’s before lawmakers right now that actually addresses the cost of health care,” she said. “The cost to our budget is so dramatic, and it’s really on an unsustainable course right now, that if we don’t make some significant changes relative to health care and how we deliver it in this state, we’re not gonna be able to afford anything else.”

Adams acknowledged that the bill might be easier to pass in 2015 because this is an election year. “It absolutely is a factor in people’s re-elections,” she said. But she and Westrom said that issue cuts both ways, because most Kentuckians don’t smoke. However, about 28 percent do, more than in any other state.

Some House members may be reluctant to vote for the bill because its prospects are poor in the Senate, where President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, opposes it. Some House Democrats say privately that Westrom didn’t help her cause by being the only Democrat not to vote for the bill Stumbo has called his top priority, to raise the minimum wage. She passed.

Westrom’s harder push for a vote in recent days coincided with a Feb. 26 tweet from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which favors the bill. The message on Twitter read, “The only way to know the vote count is to take a
vote. Kentuckians deserve a vote on HB 173, the Smoke-free Kentucky Act.”

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