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Exemption would allow some smoking

ST. PAUL - Local governments could allow smokers to light up in special rooms at bars under an exemption to a proposed statewide smoking ban the Minnesota House passed Thursday.

ST. PAUL - Local governments could allow smokers to light up in special rooms at bars under an exemption to a proposed statewide smoking ban the Minnesota House passed Thursday.

Representatives voted 85-45 to approve a smoking ban allowing narrow exceptions after opponents mostly failed to weaken the bill. The next step is to reconcile the House bill and a tougher Senate version.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tom Huntley said a statewide smoking ban would finish efforts the Legislature started about 30 years ago when it passed the Clean Indoor Air Act. The Duluth Democrat said that act protected most workers.

"This bill completes that work and protects all workers from somebody else's smoke," Huntley said of the "Freedom to Breathe" legislation.

Ban opponents disputed claims that second-hand smoke causes illness and death and that a statewide ban wouldn't hurt bars and restaurants.

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Small establishments in rural Minnesota are certain to suffer, Rep. Bud Heidgerken said.

"You're going to put a lot of these people out of business," said Heidgerken, a Freeport Republican who tried unsuccessfully to include other exemptions.

Entering Thursday's floor debate, the House bill would have let cities, counties and townships grant permits allowing smoking in bars. The language was tightened so that local governing boards could vote to allow smoking only in bars that provide ventilated smoking rooms, where employees would be prohibited during business hours. A bar would have to request the smoking license and pay a fee. Violation of the ban could result in a fine.

A conference committee will work to reach agreement between the House bill and the Senate plan, which would allow smoking in open-air patios adjoining restaurants, bars and bingo halls.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, has said he will sign a statewide smoking ban.

The House ban, which would go into effect Jan. 1, 2009, aims to prohibit smoking in all workplaces, though there are a few exceptions.

Rural lawmakers successfully pushed to exempt farm tractors and homes and garages on agricultural land.

"If we can't let our farmers...have a cigarette, we're all in trouble," Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said.

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Some didn't agree with ban supporters that public health is the bill's focus.

"This is more about prohibition than it is about safety and workers' health," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, a Virginia DFLer opposed to the measure.

Proponents said the state should adopt a consistent policy to replace the patchwork of local smoking bans.

"We do need to make sure a restriction is statewide," rather than community-by-community, Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said.

Cities along Minnesota's border would be at a disadvantage if the neighboring state allows smoking in bars or clubs, said Rep. Morrie Lanning. The Moorhead Republican said his hometown's restaurant smoking ban has worked because neighboring Fargo imposed a similar ban.

Lanning wanted representatives to let Minnesota border communities allow smoking in bars and clubs if a neighboring city in another state had that ban.

"This is an issue about fairness," Lanning said. His amendment failed 78-53, but he voted for the bill.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, suggested if a strict ban passes, the Legislature should work on another bill to change the "Star-Spangled Banner" lyrics.

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"It's going to be the land of the regulated and home of the prohibited," he said.

Still, supporters said up to 70 percent of Minnesotans want a statewide smoking ban.

"They're ahead of us. We need to follow their desires," Huntley said.

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Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said there are better ways to deal with health concerns. Smoking ban decisions should be left to local governments and individual businesses, he said.

"I think it's over-reaching on the part of the (state) government," Eken said.

Like Lanning and others, Eken cited "major concerns" over the possibility of business patrons in border towns fleeing to states like North Dakota that don't impose a statewide smoking ban.

Some amendments were approved, including a provision calling for a study of the impact of a statewide smoking ban on charitable gambling operations. That's important in rural Minnesota, where charitable gambling is used for civic benefit, Rep. Brita Sailer said.

"Group after group in our little towns are affected by needing the proceeds from charitable gambling," said Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids.

Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, supported the bill, calling it a "worker safety issue."

Wollschlager said she heard from about 200 constituents supporting a statewide ban - and "a few" from Red Wing opposing it. Some people would like to go to a restaurant or bar without coming out smelling like smoke, she said.

"There's people out there waiting for some of these places to go into," Wollschlager said.

Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, opposed the ban.

"I have small bars that would, I believe, be economically hurt with this bill," Otremba said.

Fellow opponent Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said that no one in his immediate family smokes.

"But," he added, "it comes down to civil liberties and property owners' rights."

Hamilton cited concerns over the number of people in his legislative district who might take their business across the border to Iowa, where a smoking ban does not exist.

Despite his concern over limiting personal freedoms, Rep. Frank Moe Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said he supported the smoking ban on behalf of his constituents.

"They're the ones who sent me here," he said.

An ardent smoking ban opponent, Rukavina offered several amendments to change the bill. One would have exempted the area near his northeastern Minnesota home from the ban - it failed - while another that was adopted clarifies that smoking would be permitted in tobacco shops.

Rukavina also convinced representatives to include a provision exempting private clubs without employees, citing a club like that near his home.

"I want to make sure that when the nicotine police come out there, those butt brigade folks, that they leave the Northern Club alone," he said.

State Capitol Bureau reporter Mike Longaecker contributed to this story.

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