Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sponsor of local opt-out amendment says smoking-ban bill needs it to pass; sponsor and House leaders don't care for it

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

UPDATE: The House didn't vote on this amendment, but Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, says it or something like it would give the bill a better chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Rep. Steve Riggs of Louisville has proposed an amendment to the statewide smoking ban bill that would allow cities and counties to opt out of the ban every two years, saying he wants to improve the bill's chances of becoming law.

“This amendment would negate a lot of concern about taking away local rights,” Riggs, a Democrat who supports the ban, said in a press release.

His Floor Amendment 9 to House Bill 145 proposes that local governments be able to opt out of the ban, but would be required to take another vote every two years to prevent the ban from taking effect in their jurisdiction.

Rep. Susan Westrom, five-year sponsor of the ban, first said she welcomes amendments because that is "how we edit our legislation," but still needed to talk to Riggs – and when asked if she thought this amendment was a good idea, she said it "goes against the intent of the bill."

"It is a little bit too late for this amendment," the Lexington Democrat said. "We have made too much progress."

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who says he supports the bill but has clashed with Westrom about its handling, agreed. "I think if you started from day one with that as the idea," he said, "it might have been more palatable."

Stumbo and Republican Leader Jeff Hoover said the amendment would defeat the bill's purpose.

Hoover noted, "Advocates have said for many years that we have to have a state-wide smoking ban because of the health concerns all across Kentucky."

Riggs said in an interview that the legislation hasn't had the votes for the past five years and it is time to do something different.

"If you keep swinging at the ball and missing time after time, you probably ought to change your stance," he said. "And that is what they need to do. They need to make a change to get more votes so it will pass."

Westrom said, "We have the votes." But House leaders told her Friday, Feb. 6, that she would need to have commitments from 55 of the 100 House members before they would bring her bill up for a vote.

"What it really says is, it takes 51 votes to pass, but we want 55 commitments because we can't trust everybody," Hoover said. "It's not about having a cushion; it's about they can't trust their own members when they say they are going to vote for something." He said Democratic leaders "should have the discipline to keep amendments, such as this one, from being filed."

Riggs said as chair of the House Local Government Committee, he is sensitive to the needs of cities and counties, and "If we give those people an option to opt out of it, we might be able to get some votes up here to pass the bill."

He said his amendment would allow the bill's advocates to get 90 to 95 percent of what they want to accomplish. "Most people consider that an A, excellent," he said. "This bill might bring in another 10 votes, because people feel if they have the option to opt out, that is liberty and freedom."

Riggs also said the idea might improve the bill's poor chances for passage in the Senate because some senators showed interest in the approach last year.

This is the right thing to do because they don't have enough votes to pass the bill in the House and the Senate," Riggs said.

He said smoke-free advocates don't want any changes to this bill and have not been willing to compromise for the past five years, and asked, "How much illness can we put at their feet because they won't change their swing?"

James Sharp of the American Cancer Society's lobbying arm, the Cancer Action Network, declined to comment.

Hoover, one of the relatively few Republicans for the bill, said he is mindful of opponents' arguments about personal property rights, but also of the "associated health risk with smoking and second hand smoke and the cost that this state is incurring in treating those folks who have diseases related to smoke and second hand smoke."

He concluded, "When I do the balancing test for me personally, I come down on the side that this is a step in the right direction to reduce health care cost and save lives."

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