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Compromise drifts into state smoking ban plan

By Martiga Lohn

Associated Press

ST. PAUL — Uncompromising supporters of a statewide smoking ban decided to compromise Thursday.

Two days after a House-Senate negotiating panel approved a strict, no-exceptions smoking ban — and after more than four months of maneuvering the "Freedom to Breathe Act" through the legislative process — they feared the bill might not survive a House vote today.

"They’ve lost me, and they’ve lost a good number of other people," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, one of 85 House members who supported a ban that included smoking rooms for neighborhood taverns and other exemptions. "Smokers aren’t pariahs. There comes a tipping point on smoking where you aren’t doing things for health — you’re doing things to punish."

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The negotiators scrambled to soften the smoking ban — pushing back the effective date two months to Oct. 1 and bringing back exemptions for farm buildings and vehicles and a disabled veterans rest camp in Washington County. Actors in plays could still smoke on stage.

Another amendment specifies that the ban wouldn’t apply outside of bars, restaurants and other establishments, though local governments would be free to regulate outdoor air.

"We weren’t absolutely sure it would pass the House the way it was," said Rep. Tom Huntley, the bill’s House author.

One of the smoking ban’s most outspoken opponents put it another way: "They realize they went overboard," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

The bill would outlaw smoking in Minnesota bars, restaurants, private clubs, public transportation and other workplaces. Gov. Tim Pawlenty intends to sign the bill.

Its first stop will be the Senate floor, where it’s expected to have an easy time. Then it heads to the House.

With the changes, Huntley said he expects the smoking ban to pass the House, although he acknowledged that a procedural vote to send it back for more negotiations could be a squeaker.

Some House members were unclear on the bill’s evolving details and were waiting to find out more before making up their minds.

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Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, said he voted for the House version of the smoking ban last month — with a number of exemptions — but thought the conference committee’s first bill was too strict.

"I’ll just have to see what comes back," he said.

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