COLUMBUS - Anti-tobacco activists who plan to file petitions tomorrow to force lawmakers to consider a statewide ban on smoking in public places are delivering a different message in private meetings with legislative leaders: "Never mind."
House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) is willing to give them what they want. That would be to allow the four-month clock on legislative action to run out so those who've gathered signatures for an initiated statute can return to the signature mine to put the law directly to voters in November, 2006.
"I have plenty of important things to do dealing with the economy, higher education, implementing the tax reform plan," Mr. Husted said.
Petitions containing approximately 150,000 signatures will be filed tomorrow with the secretary of state's office requiring the General Assembly to consider a law setting a statewide standard against smoking in enclosed restaurants, bars, and any other indoor location where the general public congregates.
If at least 96,780 signatures, equal to 3 percent of the votes cast in the 2002 gubernatorial election, are certified as valid, lawmakers would have four months at the start of session next year to act. They could ignore the petitions or enact an alternative law.
The proposed ban, similar to one enacted in Columbus, would be broader than Toledo's, which was watered down by referendum to allow smoking in bars and bowling alleys. If passed by the General Assembly or enacted directly by voters, the statewide ban would supersede Toledo's ordinance.
Tobacco-Free Ohio spokesman Tracy Sabetta said backers of the ban don't trust the General Assembly to pass the law as proposed without writing in exceptions for bars or other venues.
Although supporters of a statewide ban could pursue a ballot issue after the four-month period if they're dissatisfied with the legislature's results, Ms. Sabetta said they'd prefer lawmakers just stayed away from the issue.
"We're extremely confident that when it makes it to the ballot, we will be successful in protecting all Ohioans without special carve-outs," she said. "Washington state just passed a ban with 63 percent. [Columbus suburbs] Gahanna and Grandview passed bans with 63 and 65 percent."
Pursuing the initiated statute route first also requires fewer petition signatures in the long run. A direct attempt to bypass the General Assembly and pass a constitutional amendment would have required more than 300,000 signatures.
Before the Ohio Supreme Court struck down Lucas County's first attempt at a ban several years ago, state Sen. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) pushed legislation to strip county health boards of the power to unilaterally enact such bans. He said he would consider trying something this time as well.
Jacob Evans, lobbyist for the 1,000-member Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, said he knows of no immediate plans to pursue alternative legislation.
"Them asking the legislature not to do anything shows they recognize the fact that their proposal is unreasonable," he said.
"Once that happens, and a much more reasonable proposal comes out, Ohio voters are going to say, 'I can go to an extreme and support this idea, or I can go with a reasonable policy,'●" he said.
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