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" campaign.

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 weather.

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 hearings.

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 majority, vote."