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Panel agrees on strict smoking ban

ST. PAUL - Smoking would be banned in nearly all Minnesota workplaces, including bars, under a deal lawmakers plan to usher through both legislative chambers today.

A House-Senate conference committee working on a statewide smoking ban had reached a tentative agreement earlier this week, but negotiators went back to the table Thursday after House leaders feared the bill would be rejected if it wasn't modified.

The new agreement headed for the full Senate, and then the House, is a near-complete indoor ban. It does not prohibit smoking outside bars, restaurants and bingo halls, but local governments could do so.

Bill sponsor Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said the ban slated to begin later this year would safeguard service-industry employees who are the "most exposed and least protected" under existing state law.

Democratic Rep. Tom Huntley, who authored the ban in the House, said Senate negotiators agreed to include several exemptions in the compromise to shore up support.

"We want to make sure we can pass it on the House floor," said Huntley, who acknowledged the ban would be stricter than an existing measure in his hometown of Duluth.

Private clubs, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, would be subject to the statewide ban.

Opponents of the compromise in the House said they will try to send the bill back to conference committee for further consideration because it's tougher than the version they passed last month.

The ban's effective date was a sticking point in negotiations. Representatives sought a 2009 implementation. The Senate's version created an Aug. 1, 2007 start. Negotiators settled on Oct. 1, 2007.

Violation of the ban would be a petty misdemeanor.

The agreement includes some relatively minor exceptions. Smoking would be permitted in traditional American Indian ceremonies, tobacco shops, heavy trucks, agricultural equipment and family farms. It also would be allowed in theater performances and at a disabled veterans rest camp in Washington County.

The farm exemption was important to rural lawmakers, Huntley said, even though a ban on smoking in barns would not have been enforced.

"This is comfort language," he said.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he will sign a smoking ban if it is reasonable. Huntley said Thursday he believed Pawlenty could support the compromise.

"This is clearly a very good piece of legislation," said GOP Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont, who served on the conference committee.

Allowing a few exemptions won't convince some smoking ban opponents to change their vote.

Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba opposed the House version, which originally permitted indoor smoking rooms, and planned to vote the same way on the conference committee's agreement.

"Many rural bars and restaurants are in danger of going out of business," Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, said of a ban's effect.

"We should just let the marketplace do its job," added DFL Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth.

The compromise would prohibit smoking inside bars and restaurants, including those with existing separate smoking rooms.

That hurts businesses that installed ventilation equipment to comply with a Beltrami County smoking ordinance, Rep. Frank Moe said.

"So now we're going to go back on our deal? I just don't think that's right," Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said. "There's a smoking ban and then there's over the top. This is over the top."

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said the ban will hurt communities along Minnesota's border and businesses located near tribal casinos, which aren't included in the ban.

"My feeling is it's just overreaching on the part of the government," he said.