If Statewide Smoking Ban Bill is, Indeed, Dead, Who Killed it? Common Answer: ‘Leadership’

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KENTUCKY HEALTH NEWS | MELISSA PATRICK | MARCH 5, 2015

The Kentucky House of Representatives, for the first time, passed a statewide smoking ban to prohibit smoking in workplaces and indoor places on Feb. 13. The bill moved to the Senate for consideration. On the same day, a state senator proposed a nearly identical bill. And on Feb. 19, both bills were assigned to a committee that was never going to give them a hearing.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, sponsor of the Senate bill, said it and the House bill would have been approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which she chairs. But leaders of the Senate’s Republican majority sent it to the Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee, chaired by Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, who, like Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, opposes it.

“The time has come and gone,” Adams said of chances to pass the ban.

If the bill is dead, who killed it? The most common explanation offered during a series of short interviews with senators was the “leadership,” members of which have publicly said the bill didn’t have the support it needed to bring it to a vote. However, some senators said it did.

“Leadership is not willing to hear it,” said Amy Barkley, chair of the Kentucky Smoke-free Coalition. “It is a small group of people in leadership who don’t want to bring it to a vote. Why should a small group hold it up?” Barkley said that she would like leadership to “allow a vote, regardless of the results.”

Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said the leadership “makes the decision about whether we hear a bill or not.”

Stivers has said he opposes the bill because it would be too much government intervention into private business, and Buford said many other Republicans feel likewise. He said many members of his party “just do not want anybody to tell anybody what to do anymore.”

Sen. Perry Clark of Louisville, a libertarian-oriented Democrat and Public Protection Committee member, said Republican leaders strategically placed the bill in the committee.

“It doesn’t look like it will [be passed] as long as it is in Albert Robinson’s committee,” Clark said. “He is adamantly opposed to it. They knew that when they put it in his committee. They could have put it in Julie’s committee and she is adamantly for it,” he said.

The co-chair of the committee, Sen. C.B. Embry, R-Morgantown, said “Leadership determines what we vote on and when we vote. All the committees serve at the will of the leadership.”

“If leadership wants it to pass, it’s going to be heard,” said Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Vine Grove, a member of the committee.

Stivers, asked where the leadership stood on the issue, said “Until I see, or other people see in the leadership group, that there is support in the caucus for the issue, it is not going to come to the floor. If there is, it will. I haven’t seen that groundswell of support for the issue.” Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said likewise.

Another obstacle contributing to the bill’s death was the Republican policy of not allowing bills to reach the full Senate unless they are favored by a majority Republicans, who have 27 of the 38 Senate seats.

Perhaps another was indicated by the latest lobbying report from the parent firm of Philip Morris Cos., Altria Group, saying that its legislative agents were lobbying against it. The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, has said Kentucky Farm Bureau was her main foe.

Still, some senators thought there were enough votes for it to pass a floor vote.

“It would pass the floor,” Buford said. “I think when you turn the light bulb on and they all have to show their hand, it would pass.” Parrett agreed, and so did Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, a co-sponsor of the bill.

While Adams said she thought likewise, she also said she could not say that with “full confidence” because she had found in talking to the senators that many of the potential “yes” votes in the Senate wanted a bill without amendments. The House added provisions that these senators needed time to “digest” and “this session just wasn’t long enough for us to do it,” Adams said.

Advocates and sponsors continued to work on the bill even after its unfavorable assignment. Early on, co-sponsor Dr. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, explored fellow senators’ interest in an amendment allowing local governments to opt out of the ban, trying to make it more palatable to those who strongly favor local control. The advocacy groups opposed such an amendment.

“We rolled it out there and I just don’t know that we had enough support,” Alvarado said. “I asked individual members what their thoughts were and I got a lot to switch their vote and some who came to the fence, but the fence is not a yes, so that makes it a bit tougher. It would probably get some votes.”

Buford said the opt-out option “keeps us from getting a vote” because he thought most senators wanted the law, if passed, to be consistent among all 120 counties.

Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, a Public Protection Committee member, said he also opposed the amendment. “I think to make it an effective health statement and to attack the problem associated with so many diseases that result from not only smoking, but secondhand smoke, we have got to attack the problem itself,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, R-Greensburg, said the opt-out option “never really caught fire” but he was “confident that it would have caught some votes.”

Plans to resuscitate the smoking-ban bill are already under discussion.

“It is not going away,” Adams said. “It is very near and dear to my heart, not only from a health standpoint, but from an economic development standpoint – it is very good for business in Kentucky – and finally from a fiscal standpoint, because the savings that we could realize from implementing a smoke-free statewide policy are just too dramatic to discount.”

Adams said that they “would take up the House bill in the interim and see what those amendments mean and see if we can’t get those people a clean smoke-free bill.”

But Alvarado remains interested in compromise. “I think having an all or none response is going to probably get more of a none, so you have to find some method of coming to the middle,” he said. “We are hoping that as more and more people come to side with us that they will put pressure on legislators to say this is OK.”

Even Stivers offered advocates some hope when he said that he was “one of 38″ senators and that he had been known to put bills on the floor for a vote, despite his opposition, if “there was support in this chamber for that issue” and noted that more Republicans were “wanting to push the issue forward.”

Republican Caucus Chair Dan Seum of Louisville said, “I think it is an idea whose time will come. It is about education and moving people (forward). It is also a generational thing.”

Givens said that he did see a future for a smoke-free Kentucky, complementing the proponents and how they have conducted themselves in the discussion.

“It is an advocacy effort,” he said. “What is happening is the same as what happens with lots of pieces of legislation. There is a large educational component to it and by the proponents continuing the conversation, continuing to promote the effort, they are educating the populace and educating people that elect us – when they start to move the electorate, they certainly start to move us.”

Polls in the last year have shown that 57 to 66 percent of Kentucky adults support a smoking ban.

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