With 55 votes needed instead of the usual 51, it just got harder to pass a smoke-free workplace law in the House

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. – A bill to ban smoking in public places and places of employment will require the commitment of a supermajority to get a vote on the House floor, making it more difficult to pass.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said in a telephone interview that when she told leaders of the House’s Democratic majority yesterday that her bill had 49 votes, two short of a majority, Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook told her she would need 55 votes for him to bring the bill before the House.

Asked why she thought there had been a change from the usual 51 votes needed for a floor vote, Westrom said the only reason she could imagine was “There are some members of leadership that don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable . . . don’t want to ask them to take a vote.”

Last year, House leaders declined to bring the legislation to a vote, and Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg said many members didn’t want to vote on it during an election year.

Adkins said yesterday that a supermajority requirement is not unusual for any bill that is a “high priority” or “one that has been discussed a lot.” He said the rule applied to Stumbo’s House Bill 2, to raise the state minimum wage. It passed in the House Tuesday, 56-43.

Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, the longest-serving member of the legislature and chairman of the committee that approved the bill, said requiring 55 votes to get a floor vote happens from time to time. He said this will “provide a cushion” because “some of these guys will crawfish,” or will back off when they see there are 51 votes.

Offering an example of why it it is best to go into a vote with a cushion, Burch recalled 1980, when new Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. took his gas-tax bill to a vote, thinking he had 51. But someone who had committed to vote for it reneged during the vote, leaving Brown one vote short. Burch said he cast the 51st vote at the request of House leaders, who had told him that his vote wouldnt be needed.

“We need a cushion,” Burch said.

Westrom said the request from Adkins for 55 votes “comes as no surprise to me.”

“We must roll with the punches and keep moving forward,” she said. “I am making connections with those in the middle, providing them with information to help them with their comfort zone.”

She said that she and other advocates had been educating her colleagues for five years about the importance and need for a smoking ban, but some were just not receptive.

“There are some freshman legislators from rural areas who get it, and seasoned legislators that still don’t,” she said.

When House Bill 145 passed the Health and Welfare Committee 11-4 last week, Westrom said, “I feel very confident we will get a floor vote.” But at that time, she was aiming for 51.

The bill has never gotten out of committee in the Senate and chances in the Senate this year continues to remain doubtful.

James Sharp, lobbyist for the American Cancer Society‘s Cancer Action Network, said that with 66 percent of Kentuckians statewide supporting the bill, it is time for state leaders to make “the health and economic viability of our commonwealth” a priority by passing this bill.

“We need our leaders in either chamber, in either party, to step up and lead on this issue,” Sharp said. “Bring this bill for a vote. Get it passed for the health of all Kentuckians, sooner than later.”

Adkins, asked if leaders are doing enough, said they were listening to and working with their caucuses. “So, I think we are working our way through the process,” he said. He commended Westrom and advocacy groups for “an outstanding job of really educating people on this piece of legislation, educating Kentuckians.”

Burch said, “I am voting for this bill because it is the right thing to do” and encouraged lawmakers to listen to their constituents.

“If these people would listen to what their districts thought, they would be for this bill 100 percent,” he said. “Because 75 percent of Kentuckians don’t smoke and don’t want somebody blowing smoke in their face and they don’t want the results of second-hand smoke.”

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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