Smoking ban heats up final session

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A statewide ban on smoking in Virginia restaurants was heating up the benches of the General Assembly as it reconvened Wednesday for a one-day veto override session.

Last month, lawmakers passed Del. Morgan Griffith’s bill prohibiting smoking in restaurants, unless the owner posts a sign saying it’s allowed. Gov. Tim Kaine then amended the bill to prohibit smoking in all restaurants.

While no one in Richmond seemed to be arguing the negative health consequences of second-hand smoke (it kills 1,000 Virginians each year), representatives of the hospitality industry said they feared the ban goes too far, a debate sparked by the how Virginia defines restaurants.

The law defines restaurants as any place where food is prepared for service to the public or any place food is served. But critics of the bill said they were fearful that smokers would need to hire attorneys just to determine where they can light up. Thus, if you’re walking down a sidewalk smoking and you pass a hot dog stand, you could be breaking the law.

But Senator Brandon Bell, along with members of the health care community, accused those critics of over-dramatizing the ban’s unintended consequences, fearing the amendment would pass. Bell said the ban is necessary to protect restaurant employees, who are forced to breathe tobacco smoke.

Kaine said he would veto the bill if the House defeats his amendments. He

said he proposed the statewide ban primarily to protect restaurant workers. He said diners who don’t want to be exposed to second-hand smoke can choose a non-smoking restaurant, or eat at home. “Restaurant employees don’t have much choice where they work,” Kaine said, calling a provision allowing restaurants to offer a separate smoking section, a “step backward.”  

Virginia’s health commissioner Robert Stroube said Monday that he would appoint a task force to develop “a common sense definition” that would cover what kinds of eating establishments would be covered.

Richmond is the home of Philip Morris, the world’s largest maker of cigarettes, and the full House has never voted on a smoking ban, so there’s no predicting how lawmakers would vote. House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith of Salem, the sponsor of the bill, was urging lawmakers to reject Kaine’s amendment.

Meanwhile, in a last-minute flurry of legislative activity last week, Kaine announced amendments to hundreds of bills, including reforming the way electric utilities are regulated, proposing more stringent enviromental requirements and proposing more enhanced price protections for utility customers than the General Assembly had approved in January. He also vetoed three more bills, including one that would have exempted religious schools from paying building inspection fees.

To date this year, Kaine has vetoed 10 bills, including five that would have expanded the list of crimes eligible for the death penalty. Kaine also signed a controversial bill allowing school systems to rent or lend buses to private schools, which opponents said might allow religious schools to use public resources. However, Kaine said the measure was not mandatory.

State lawmakers were also poised to take up Kaine’s amendments to the Transportation Funding and Reform Act, which would fund road and transit improvements to the tune of $3 billion. Democratic lawmakers’ principal complaint about the package is that it diverts up to $184 million per year from the state’s general fund to roads, which traditionally have been funded from non-general-fund money, such as money from dedicated sources such as the gasoline tax.

As a follow-up to his campaign pledge, Kaine also wants to reduce Virginia’s subsidies for new development  fast-growing counties, such as in Northern Virginia, where new houses and shopping centers are sprouting up all over, sometimes leaving local and state governments in the lurch to provide services to those new developments such as new schools, roads, sewers and water.

Many other states have legislated away this so-called “free ride for developers.” Rather than force taxpayers to subsidize development, some localities require developers to pay their own way in funding infrastructure.

Kaine, in a proposal suggested by House Speaker William Howell, said he wants to give that same authority to many Virginia localities. Last week, he amended the General Assembly’s transportation plan to include impact fees on residential and commercial development for roads. Lawmakers will decide on Wednesday whether to accept his amendment.

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