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Smoking ban bill snuffs out border cities' option

ST. PAUL - Border cities would fall under the same laws as other Minnesota communities, a House committee decided Monday when debating a statewide smoking ban.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, wanted smoking allowed in border cities' bars and private clubs, but it was defeated on a close voice vote. As the bill stands, headed to at least two more committees before a full House vote, local governments would be allowed to issue permits for smoking in bars.

Nornes said bars in communities like Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Breckenridge would lose business to their larger North Dakota neighbors if smoking were allowed in North Dakota, but not Minnesota.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth and the smoking ban's sponsor, said his community's bars experienced no business loss when the city banned smoking.

Nornes said Red River Valley communities are different from Duluth, which is separated by a long bridge from Superior, Wis.

"You can walk across," he said of western Minnesota communities. "They are literally one community separated by the Red River."

However, Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said exempting border communities is not fair to towns a little further inside Minnesota.

After Nornes' amendment failed, the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Division approved bill, sending it on to another committee. It is similar to a Senate-passed bill, but the Senate does not give local communities the right to allow smoking in bars.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he will sign a smoking ban.

Under the House bill, the smoking ban would start Jan. 1, 2009, which Huntley said is enough time for bars to get ready.

Huntley said he hopes the local smoking option is removed, but said he expects the House to pass some form of a ban before lawmakers adjourn for the year on May 21.

Monday's debate pitted committee Chairman Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, against a Virginia native, Pat McKone of the American Lung Association.

"It is sad to see (Iron) Rangers fight this issue of worker health," McKone said.

Rukavina fired back that it is "somewhat absurd" that taconite miners can breathe in all kinds of dangerous dust and fumes, but not be allowed to smoke cigarettes.

If smoking bans save as many lives and help health as ban supporters claim, Rep. Tom Rukavina asked, why they are not trying to ban the sale of tobacco and why Rep. Tom Huntley's bill does not require insurance companies to reduce premiums.

McKone said legislators are obligated to ban smoking since science proves its danger.

About 6,000 Minnesotans die every year because of smoke, and 300 of them never smoked themselves, Huntley said.

Joan Lindski, a waitress at the Pickwick, a Duluth restaurant, made a return trip to the Capitol to argue for a ban.

"As a voter, I am totally disgusted with all the hedging going on in Duluth and St. Louis County," she said.

She added that all of Minnesota should be smoke free. She demonstrated how the state is now by holding up a T-shirt full of holes, an example of the patchwork of smoke-free local ordinances around the state. Then she held up a good T-shirt, saying that is how Minnesota should look.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.