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Michigan smoking ban close but no cigar, for now

As the Michigan Senate decides when to cast a vote on a workplace smoking ban, bars and restaurants included, that's been sitting in the chamber since May, there are two possibilities in the five remaining days of session the Legislature has scheduled in 2009.

One is an actual law that has Michigan joining some three dozen other states with smoking bans.

The other produces "yes" votes for a smoking ban, but nothing that Gov. Jennifer Granholm can sign because each chamber approved versions known to be unacceptable to the other. It leaves bars and restaurants filled with cigarette smoke, but cynically presumes the public won't know whom to individually fault for the legislative failure.

The measure the Senate may take up Thursday, passed by the House 73-31 more than six months ago, contains carveouts for cigars, tobacco shops and most importantly the gaming floors of Detroit's three commercial casinos.

Why are the casinos important? Because they all employ multi-client lobbying shops that charge thousands monthly on the business premise that they have the capacity to kill, delay or water down legislation that isn't in the interests of their clients.

Any one of those feats is victory and in 2007-08 session the casinos won even though both the House and Senate each voted to ban smoking. Since they were different versions, nothing ever got to Gov. Jennifer Granholm's desk for her signature. The House bill contained exemptions. The Senate bill didn't. When the House voted on the Senate bill on the eve of the 2008 election, it fell six votes short.

Could the same thing happen again? Perhaps. Health advocate lobbyists say they have the votes in the Senate for either a bill with exemptions or one without. The question is what version will leave the chamber and cross the hall back to the House?

Senate agreement with the House exemptions means that non-smokers would have a reason to celebrate the new year, though not technically until April 1 when a smoking ban would likely take effect. Casinos would be happy. Smoking opponents would see it as an acceptable compromise given that the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

If senators, as they did last session, pass a bill without exemptions, expect casino interests to try and squash the bill in the House where they appear to have more sway. A clean clean air bill, however, puts considerable pressure on House Speaker Andy Dillon, whom smoking opponents blame for last session's failed effort.

The difference this time is that Dillon has 67 Democrats in his caucus, a large majority of them in favor of banning workplace smoking. It's popular with the public. Those who would benefit most from the elimination of secondhand smoke are the bartenders, wait staff and other hospitality workers in an economic demographic that Democrats are in office to defend.

As was the case last session, missing from the current effort is commitment from legislative leadership in both parties to construct not just political cover for their members, but actual statute that polling says the public wants. Victory for the public in this case means breathable indoor air. Victory for politicians all too often means avoiding blame.

An indoor smoking ban in Michigan is thus far from assured.