Vote nears on Md. smoking ban

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley has joined lobbying efforts for a proposed statewide smoking ban, which he has pledged to sign should the Maryland General Assembly pass the legislation.

The governor has reached out to key committee members considering the bill, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. The House Economic Matters and Senate Finance committees might vote today or early next week. O'Malley's involvement could tip the balance on the panels, where legislators have been roughly split on the matter, backers say.

O'Malley did not embrace a city smoking ban when he was Baltimore mayor, saying he was concerned that bars and restaurants would be hurt by competition in neighboring jurisdictions. But he endorsed a statewide smoking ban after the Baltimore City Council last month approved a measure prohibiting smoking in nearly all public places, including bars and restaurants.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee and a Charles County Democrat, has said he expects the vote on his panel to be a tie, in which case he would vote to send the bill to the full Senate. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, have said the measure appears to have the votes needed for passage in the full chambers.

"The drumbeat is going to get stronger and stronger, and ultimately we're going to be there," Middleton said.

Middleton's committee heard yesterday from witnesses on the smoking ban, including former state Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Democrat from Montgomery County, one of five counties that have enacted bans. The others are Charles, Howard, Prince George's and Talbot.

"We have to do something about this issue," said Ruben, who had been a sponsor of the statewide measure, which has died in the legislature for four consecutive years.

The statewide ban would prohibit customers from lighting up in restaurants and bars, which were exempted when the state banned smoking in most workplaces more than a decade ago.

Proponents of the legislation say they are trying to protect workers as well as customers from the dangers of secondhand smoke. Opponents, including the Restaurant Association of Maryland, say the ban would hurt small businesses by driving away smoking customers and that establishments should be allowed to decide whether to go smoke-free.

In the House, committee member Del. Brian K. McHale said he has discussed the smoking ban with O'Malley as part of a conversation on a number of issues. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat, has not indicated how he would vote and said he would like to examine how counties have implemented their bans.

Another committee member, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who was "on the fence" on the statewide ban, said yesterday that he has decided to vote for it. He said he had not talked with O'Malley.

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