Smoking-ban bills get unfavorable committee assignment in state Senate, but supporters say they’ll keep trying to get votes

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. – The state Senate’s Republican leaders have assigned both the Republican and Democratic smoking-ban bills to a committee that appears unlikely to send them to the full Senate.

The Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee got House Bill 145, which the House had passed 51-46, and Senate Bill 189, filed by Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville.

Adams is chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, and smoke-free advocates had hoped the bills would go there, improving its chances in a Senate that doesn’t appear disposed to pass it.

Senate President Robert Stivers defended the assignment, saying the bills relate to public protection. Last year, a smoking-ban bill sponsored by the previous Health and Welfare chair, Republican Julie Denton of Louisville, was sent to the Judiciary Committee and never heard.

Stivers was asked if Adams’ bill was sent elsewhere because of her support for it. He acknowledged that it could have been considered a health issue, and “It was a choice.” Pushed to answer, he said, “I don’t recall anything being made, because we put a lot of bills in chairman’s committees that they support whether leadership supports it or not.”

Adams did not respond to requests for comment, but Amy Barkley, chair of the Smoke-free Kentucky Coalition, said she had hoped the bill would go to Health and Welfare because it addresses a health issue.

“We hope it gets a hearing in the Senate,” Barkley said. “We are hoping that even if those individuals in leadership are not supportive, that they will at least let the bill have a fair hearing and hopefully a vote – and they can vote no if they are not supportive, but we think it deserves to have a vote so we know where people stand.”

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, of Louisville, a Democratic co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said he understood how a smoking ban could be perceived as a public-protection matter, but used the assignment as an argument for the legislation.

“There is no bill we can pass this session that would save the state more money than a comprehensive statewide smoking ban,” he said. “It will make Kentuckians healthier; it will save the state money.”

Advocates’ job will be to persuade Republicans, whose policy is not to allow bills to reach the full Senate unless they are favored by a majority of the 26 Republican senators.

The chairman of the Public Protection Committee, Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, said through his assistant that he wasn’t ready to talk about the bills because they had just been assigned to his committee. He told the Lexington Herald-Leader, “I don’t know if there is support for it in my committee.” He told The Courier-Journal that he opposes the bill.

The legislation has been debated in the legislature for five years. Senate Bill 189 is identical to the original House bill, which was amended. Both bills would prohibit smoking in workplaces and indoor places, and within 15 feet of their entrances, to protect others from secondhand smoke, which is estimated to kill 950 Kentuckians annually.

House Bill 145 passed with three changes: an exemption for cigar bars, cigar clubs, tobacco stores, private clubs and market-research facilities; significantly lower fines for violation; and preservation of any weaker or stronger local bans in effect when the bill would become law, in late June.

The fundamental conflict about the bill, largely along party lines, is whether individual liberties or public health take priority.

Stivers reiterated his stance, siding with those who support individual liberties.

“I do not like smoking. I don’t patronize places that smoke. I have allergies,” he said. “It costs you money to take your suits to the cleaners and things of that nature, but I just don’t think it is the role of government to start telling private businesses what they can and can’t do from that perspective.”

He suggested that his opposition wasn’t decisive. “I am one of 38 [senators] and if you go back and look at respective bills, there have been bills that I haven’t voted on that have made it to the floor because they have the support of the body. Actually, I think we voted on one this week or maybe late last week that I did not vote for, but there was support in this chamber for that issue.”

Stivers noted that more Republican senators support the ban than last session, mentioning Adams and Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester physician. Both were elected to the Senate last fall.

Alvarado explained why he values health over liberty on this issue. He said we all have the right to swing punches at another person, but at the point of contact, that person’s rights have been violated. “My individual rights to do something ends when it affects the rights of another individual is my perspective, and secondhand smoke is just that,” he said.

Alvarado said he continues to talk to senators about why they should support a statewide smoking ban, saying,” It would cost nothing to implement and the benefit from a fiscal perspective and lives saved . . . would be tremendous.”

As a rookie public official, Alvarado said he still has a “romantic idea” that it is possible to persuade senators to change their positions and “find at least some type of compromise to get more people covered and to reduce (secondhand smoke) exposure.”

Sen. Perry Clark of Louisville, a libertarian-oriented Democrat on the Public Protection Committee, said it was too early to say how he might vote on the issue because the bill might be amended. It has been suggested that the bill could pass if local governments could opt out of the ban, but Barkley told The Courier-Journal that would fatally weaken it.

Besides Clark and Robinson, other members of the committee are Republicans C.B. Embry of Beaver Dam, Carroll Gibson of Leitchfield, Ernie Harris of Prospect, Stan Humphries of Cadiz, Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill, Dan Seum of Louisville, Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville, Mike Wilson of Bowling Green and Max Wise of Campbellsville; and Democrats Julian Carroll of Frankfort and Dennis Parrett of Vine Grove.

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