Posted: Jan. 26, 2003
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
The smoking ban has been nothing short of an
uproar in the opening weeks of the Delaware General Assembly.
It has been rendered as emotional a subject as
guns or abortion, and the political maneuvering has been fast and
furious and not necessarily on the up-and-up. These are, after all,
desperate times as smokers shiver in 12-degree weather.
"I have not seen this much public interest
about an issue on both sides since desegregation in the 1970s," said
Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist working against the smoking ban.
A lot of the smokers' anger has been focused
on Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. She is a one-term Democrat, and her smoking
critics would like to keep it that way with their "Ban Ruth Ann"
Minner has not flinched, however. She is for
the smoking ban as a matter of public health and said so flatly last
Thursday in her State of the State speech, which is any governor's
most bully pulpit. "I want to keep it," she said.
The ban has been in effect since Nov. 27. The
forces for repeal, or at least revision, are marshaling for their
first assault in the House of Representatives with a bill, H.B. 15,
that would reopen the way for casinos, bars and charitable gambling
events, including bingo, to accommodate smoking.
The bill's chief backers are Reps.
Pamela J. Thornburg and George R. "Bobby" Quillen, a couple of Kent
County Republicans, and they introduced the legislation last Tuesday
with now-you-see-it-now-you-don't nonchalance to catch their
adversaries napping, and they did.
Bang went the speaker's gavel calling
the House to order, and up popped Thornburg to introduce the bill.
Bang went the speaker's gavel assigning the bill to the
friendly confines of a House committee that Quillen chairs, and up
popped Quillen to schedule a public hearing for the next day to
fast-track the bill for a vote. All that was missing from this
railroad job was a train whistle.
The prime architects of the smoking ban --
Reps. Deborah D. Hudson and Robert J. Valihura Jr., Republicans who
represent Chateau Country and Brandywine Hundred -- had not even
made it to the House floor before the deal was done.
As soon as the House took a break, Hudson and
Valihura went flying into Republican Speaker Terry R. Spence's office to see
what they could undo. A little, as it turned out.
The bill stayed in Quillen's Natural Resources
& Environmental Management Committee, where it can be guaranteed
sympathetic treatment, but the public hearing was
postponed for a week. It now appears it will be held Wednesday at
2:30 p.m. in the House chamber.
Not that Hudson and Valihura intend to let
Quillen have the only word on smoking. They have their own forum to
counter his. Hudson chairs the House Revenue & Finance Committee,
and she has called a meeting for Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the House
chamber with state Finance Secretary David W. Singleton to hash over
the financial fallout from the smoking ban.
Money, of course, is one of the prime
arguments cited against the smoking ban. The reasoning goes that the
new law is costing the bars and casinos business and hurting the state's
take, as well, at a time when the economy is nearly as cold as the
The governor has said repeatedly the state
must close a $300 million gap, amounting to roughly 10 percent of
the budget, between projected revenues and spending in the next
fiscal year, which begins July 1. Minner's budget proposal is due on
Thursday, and she is reluctant to raise taxes, lay off state workers
or raid an emergency reserve.
An argument can be made that this is a bad
time economically to institute a smoking ban. The state's share from the
slot-machine operations at the race tracks at Delaware Park in
Stanton, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway is considerable. Byrd,
the lobbyist, says the projection for this year is $180 million but
could have been $215 million if not for the smoking ban -- a loss of
$125,000 a day.
The tracks are not crying poor, Byrd said, but
sorrowing over the lost possibilities. "What they're saying is,
everybody is losing opportunity. With the smoking ban in effect, we
are not being allowed to maximize our opportunity, and we're all
losing money," he said.
Singleton, the finance secretary, acknowledges
the money is down but insists it is not as bad as anticipated and
expects the revenues eventually to recover.
In the first 33 days of the ban from Nov. 27
to Dec. 29, the amount played in 2002, as compared to the same days
in 2001, dropped by 11.7 percent, which was smaller than the
predicted decline of 13.3 percent. If two days of bad weather -- a
snow storm and an ice storm -- are thrown out, the play was down 9.7
percent. During the week of New Year's Day, there actually was a 2
percent increase, when compared to a year ago.
Besides, Singleton said, the smoking ban is a
public health issue, not a revenue issue. "Most things worth doing
cost some pain. This is something worth doing," he said.
By the time Singleton testifies at the House
Revenue & Finance Committee, it will hardly be the first time the
revenue forecasts arise as the object of politicking.
Byrd is not only a lobbyist but also the
chairman of the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council, or
DEFAC, a Minner appointee responsible for the projections the state
relies upon for its budgeting. Early in January, when he was
interviewed about the slots revenue on WHYY-TV 12, he was described
as both the DEFAC chairman and a lobbyist, leaving the viewers to
sort out his roles as he criticized the smoking ban.
Nevertheless, Minner is reconciled to Byrd's
dual purposes as long as DEFAC produces an unbiased reckoning of the
state's finances and no surprises, according to Gregory B.
Patterson, the governor's communications director.
"Bob Byrd has demonstrated to the governor an
ability to distinguish his advocacy from his role as head of DEFAC.
That [interview] was one of the occasions where he wore both hats.
The governor knows and everyone involved in government circles knows
you're going to run into these situations," said Patterson before
quipping, "Only in Delaware."
If Minner was comfortable with Byrd's
situation, Hudson was less so.
"It's a fine line. He needs to make the decision on his own, but
people are questioning it. There is an appearance of conflict of
interest," she said.
The future of the smoking ban is as clear as,
well, smoke. Minner predicted a bill to roll it back won't reach her
desk, but the one in the House appears to have some momentum.
Valihura acknowledged the current priority for his side is to slow
it down and at least prevent it from coming up for a vote before the
General Assembly recesses on Jan. 30 for six weeks of budget
Valihura and Hudson are preparing to lard the
bill with a slew of
amendments and talk it to a standstill, but stalling
is rarely a sign of strength.
It has been so since the earliest days of the
Republic, when Roger Sherman of Connecticut admonished his fellow
delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the
summer of 1787, "When you are in a minority, talk; when you are in a
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