Smoking ban backed by legislative leaders

PIERRE -- High-ranking members of the state Republican and Democratic parties expect a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars will be passed in this year's Legislature.

PIERRE -- High-ranking members of the state Republican and Democratic parties expect a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars will be passed in this year's Legislature.

And if they don't decide favorably for a smoking ban between now and March, the legislative leaders expect South Dakota voters will make the decision on their own in a statewide vote later in the year.

"Overhanging this all is the likelihood of a ballot initiative, if this bill fails. The smoking cessation groups feel very passionately about this issue, and if this fails to pass in 2009, I think it's virtually a given it will be on the ballot, in substantially the same form it's been introduced, with no exceptions," said Sen. Dave Knudson, R-Sioux Falls, who not only is this session's Senate majority leader but also is an early candidate for governor in 2010. "The prevailing sentiment is that it is likely to pass relatively easily ... and I think it colors a lot of legislators' views that they should just adopt this to avoid putting the people through a ballot issue."

Several nearby states already have public smoking bans, which prohibit lighting up in restaurants, bars and other similar places. It's an issue that's been discussed in South Dakota in the past, although it has failed to take root in the Legislature. Gov. Mike Rounds has mandated no smoking in government buildings, and some businesses -- including some bars in Mitchell -- have made their own choice to prohibit smoking.

Pushed by health-based groups and study results, the legislative leaders say the 2009 Legislature appears to be leaning toward enacting a ban.


Because leadership from both parties is backing the measure this year, Senate minority leader Scott Heidepriem, D-Sioux Falls, told members of the South Dakota Newspaper Association he believes a smoking ban "has achieved a certain center of gravity that it didn't have before."

At a Thursday press conference with the SDNA contingent, House minority leader Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, said he feels "the time has come. It's just a matter of time now. The health information is just so overpowering."

And it's not just about the bar and restaurant patrons who many feel deserve a break from secondhand smoke, Hunhoff said. Employees at those establishments are entitled to a safe and healthy work environment, he said. Although it's true that workers can simply find another job, it's not fair to force them to do so, he said.

"It's just not right to make someone work in an unhealthy environment," he said.

The Republican leaders who spoke at Thursday's press conference said they have heard of polls that show that at least 65 percent of responding South Dakotans favor a smoking ban, yet they also conceded that there are opponents.

Among the opposition is Republican Rep. Kristi Noem, R-Castlewood, who predicts a downturn in video lottery income for the state and says that is "something all legislators need to look at."

She thinks the decision should be left to individual business owners, and not the government.

Lawmakers from Mitchell agree, both with maintaining local control and also in their concerns about a loss of state revenue.


"I'm hearing probably five to one in favor of the smoking ban. ... If you took a vote here today, I'm not sure that a smoking ban wouldn't be enacted," said Rep. Noel Hamiel, R-Mitchell. "Having said that, I think some people are still looking for ways to accommodate people to make their own decision. I campaigned on letting businesses make their own decisions and that's still my position. ... But I have to tell you, I'm getting an awful lot of information from people who want to ban smoking altogether."

Hamiel said that before making up his mind, he wants to hear testimony on the proposal. He prefers finding a way to allow video lottery-only rooms or establishments to allow smoking and worries about a "revenue hit" the state could face if it bans smoking in bars.

"Some information suggests that if you ban smoking, state government will take a hit of millions of dollars," he said.

Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, feels the same way.

"I have always said that it's up to the proprietor to say how he wants to run his facility," he said. "I also know that various people in this state don't smoke and if it goes to a vote of the people, a lot of people who don't even go to bars will vote ... so it will fail."

Vehle said he has been in contact with the restaurant, bar and lottery industry and said that if they seek a compromise, he will help. He said banning smoking in restaurants, but not bars that serve no true menu items, could be a possibility.

"This is a tough time to put a dent in what we'll see from lottery earnings and bar earnings," he said.

Said Rep. Lance Carson, R-Mitchell: "One thing I hope is that we don't lose any revenues from video lottery. ... I'd like to see, this year, video lottery as an exception for the simple reason that the state cannot afford to lose that revenue."

Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

Over time, he has been a board member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.

As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.

In the past, Wenzel was sports editor for 14 years at The Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D., before becoming editor and, eventually, publisher.

Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103.
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