Budget bill includes smoking shacks provision
By Martiga Lohn
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House voted Thursday to give smokers some shelter — in smoking shacks outside of the bars and restaurants where lighting up became illegal six months ago.
The measure was tacked on to a supersized budget bill in the 11th hour of a wide-ranging debate that touched on abortion, guns, transit, the Republican National Convention — even landfills. It was the first time the Legislature revisited the "Freedom to Breathe Act" approved last year.
In a 73-59 vote, the House voted to allow smoking in shelters outside of establishments, though the smokers would have to do without food or drink service. Smoking ban supporters warned that the change could open the door to "mischief," but the DFL and GOP defenders of bar and restaurant owners overruled them.
"This is an environmental vote if you think about it because all those butts are ending up on the street with those people standing out there," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.
Smoking shacks have a long way to go before becoming law. Both the Senate and Gov. Tim Pawlenty would have to agree to the policy change. Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the smoking ban’s sponsor, said the smoking shelters would chip away at the statewide smoking ban seen by many as a major health improvement.
House and Senate plans
All-encompassing bills for attacking a $935 million budget deficit consumed the DFL-led Legislature on Thursday and into early today, setting up the three-way negotiations that will bring the 2008 session to a close.
The Senate gave preliminary approval to its budget bill on a divided voice vote Thursday evening, while the House plan — labeled the "War of 1812" because of its file number — passed 83-49 early today after more than 14 hours of debate.
Separate House and Senate plans both rely heavily on dollars shifted from the state’s checking and savings accounts. But they also bite into payments to hospitals, courts, colleges and many other government programs.
GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Thursday he was bothered by the bills that had taken shape, noting that many ideas he championed fall under the ax. As an example, both bills squeeze his QComp program, which bases teacher raises more on performance than seniority.
"Their budget bills are filled with stuff that defunds my priorities," he said. They are "putting together bills they know are unacceptable to me."
The Republican National Convention, coming to St. Paul in September, sparked disputes over bar hours and money.
House members stripped out a provision allowing bars in cities within 10 miles of St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center to pour two hours longer during the convention. Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, promised a full airing in a committee hearing next week.
"This is St. Paul’s opportunity to be considered a big city," said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who argued for keeping the measure.
In a twist, Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington tried to remove a $14 million guarantee for convention fundraisers from the bill, and Democrats argued to keep it. The move failed.
"I’m glad that they chose us," said Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids.
The Senate went the opposite direction and stymied an attempt to add the convention pledge to their bill, drawing a howl of protest from Senate Minority Leader David Senjem who said the state is reneging on a contract promise.
"Frankly, that’s an embarrassment to our state," he said.
Finally, the votes
The Senate dispatched with its budget bill and dozens of amendments faster than the House after voting to remove freestanding policy provisions that didn’t have any money attached to them. Policy clashes ate up hours of the House’s time.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen acknowledged that the budget bill wouldn’t please everyone.
"In a perfect world, I would vote no on this bill," said Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. "But this budget and our circumstances today are not the perfect world."
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, took issue with the amount being taken from reserves and the cash-flow account when budget problems are expected to linger.
"It’s just going to be tougher next year to just put a little Band-Aid on it this year," he said.
The Legislature has until May 19 to complete its work, but there is a growing sense that lawmakers can reach the finish line early for a change. They passed a construction projects bill Wednesday and a sizable transportation finance plan earlier in the year.
"It’s bonding, budget and bye-bye," said House Republican leader Marty Seifert of Marshall.