COLUMBUS - An effort to place a strict statewide ban on smoking in virtually all indoor public places on the November ballot was dealt a blow yesterday by a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge.
But whether the blow will be fatal or merely an irritant is unclear.
Judge David Cain invalidated a number of petitions circulated on behalf of a coalition of health organizations calling itself SmokeFreeOhio. Those petitions placed a proposed smoking ban before the Ohio General Assembly as an initiated statute at the beginning of the year with the long-term goal of putting the issue directly to voters on Nov. 7.
Jacob Evans, lobbyist for the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, estimated that the decision invalidates 44,000 signatures.
"The court decision [yesterday] clearly indicates they were well below the number of signatures needed to even send this to the General Assembly," said Mr. Evans. The petition needed 100,000 signatures.
But Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell had already certified the petitions as valid and forwarded them to the General Assembly, starting the four-month clock for legislative action at the beginning of the year. The deadline passed earlier this week without legislative action, and supporters of the ban have already launched the next round of signature gathering to put the issue on the ballot.
"Ohioans shouldn't be denied the opportunity to vote on this because we followed the rules that the secretary of state put forward to us," said Tracy Sabetta, spokesman for SmokeFreeOhio. "They shouldn't be denied the opportunity to make this decision because the tobacco industry keeps funding multiple lawsuits."
Judge Cain ruled that paid signature gatherers should have noted as their employer on their petitions the name of the professional firm that hired them, not the American Cancer Society that was paying the firm. Ms. Sabetta said SmokeFreeOhio was following the secretary of state's advice when it listed the Cancer Society as the employer.
"ACS made a mistake, but this court cannot wholesale ignore the law in order to let that mistake slide," wrote Judge Cain.
Blackwell spokesman James Lee said attorneys are studying the decision and will have a better idea what impact it will have next week. Meanwhile, Ms. Sabetta said the court decision will be appealed.
Ms. Sabetta said SmokeFreeOhio is prepared to gather more signatures.
In the event the strict smoking ban fails to make the ballot, Mr. Evans said the coalition of bars, restaurants, retailers, nursing homes, and tobacco companies, calling itself Smoke Less Ohio, will proceed with its own proposed constitutional amendment in the fall. That would ask voters to approve a weaker ban exempting bars, bowling alleys, bingo halls, restaurants with separate smoking areas, and some other sites from the ban.
While ruling against SmokeFreeOhio on the petition employer issue, Judge Cain rejected the challenge of the opponents of the strict ban to the use of paid non-Ohioans to circulate the petitions. Lawmakers have since enacted a law that requires circulators of petitions to be state residents.
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