In its rush through the General Assembly, the bill to dilute Maryland's workplace smoking ban hit what could be a serious snag yesterday.
Hours after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure, the state's top lawyer said the bill should not take effect until June 1 -- about two months after the ban begins March 27.
Although it may seem like a small matter, the bill's effective date is crucial to whether it takes effect at all during the next 20 months.
The bill, which would exempt restaurants, bars, clubs and hotels from the smoking ban, was drafted as an emergency measure. An emergency bill goes into effect as soon as it is passed and remains in effect unless voters reject it at the polls.
But if there is no emergency -- as Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. ruled yesterday -- then anti-smoking activists could delay the bill's implementation until late next year just by petitioning it to a referendum. If they did, smoking would be banned in bars, hotels and restaurants until the exemptions bill was put to voters in the next statewide election in November 1996.
The bill would not affect other provisions of the smoking ban, which would continue to forbid smoking in offices, factories, stores and restaurants that do not serve alcohol. Smoking would be allowed in specially ventilated, enclosed employee lounges.
Health activists do not want any businesses exempted from the ban -- one of the toughest in the nation -- because they want all employees protected from secondhand smoke.
Eric Gally, president of Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of anti-smoking groups, said he has not had time to consider whether to launch a petition drive.
"Everything has happened so fast that no one has had time to stop and consider if this is something we should do," he said. "We're still hopeful a rational solution can be worked out in the General Assembly."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who supports the ban, said he would support a referendum if legislators, as expected, pass the bill to weaken the ban and then override his promised veto. Both houses of the legislature have enough votes to override a veto.
Legislators responded to the attorney general's opinion by releasing a legal opinion from their advisers saying the bill does qualify as emergency legislation that should take effect immediately. Only a court can decide which opinion is right.
The ban was issued by state occupational safety and health regulators last year.