Smoking Ban Reversal Ain’t Gonna Happen
Even the Montana Tavern Association Opposes It
BY PAT HILL
The 2009 Montana Legislature is unlikely to reverse a smoking ban in the state's bars and casinos that takes effect in October.
In 2005, state lawmakers struggled with the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act, a smoking ban that would affect businesses across the board, from public buildings to indoor workplaces. Bars, restaurants, and casinos where smoking was allowed would be affected by the new legislation first and foremost. The powerful Montana Tavern Association argued against immediate imposition of the act in bars and casinos, and a compromise was reached: businesses possessing liquor licen-ses would be exempted from compliance with the Montana Clean Indoor Act until Oct. 1, 2009.
The compromise passed legis-lative muster and was signed into law by Governor Brian Schweitzer, but as zero hour nears for compliance with the law, a former president of the Montana Tavern Association has asked Sen. Jerry Black (R-Shelby) to request a bill draft exempting bars and casinos from the 2005 Montana Clean Indoor Act. The move is not supported by the vast majority of the MTA, who are committed to upholding their end of the bargain that enabled their businesses to be exempt from the smoking ban until 2009.
“I'm the nasty bastard,” said longtime MTA member Darrell Keck at a full executive board meeting of the association in November, according to the Dec. 2008 issue of the Montana Tavern Times. “I've made arrangements for a bill to be filed to make a smoking exemption for taverns permanent. I'm the driving force. MTA is not involved.”
Keck, who owns the Dixie Inn’s steakhouse, lounge and casino in Shelby, told the board that he's also seeking “a Democrat to sign on” for the smoking exemption bill, and has also hired a lobbying firm to represent his interests in the legislature. Keck also told fellow board members that he wanted the MTA to remain neutral regarding his legislative wishes.
“It's a personal property rights issue,” Keck told the board, according to the Montana Tavern Times, “not a health issue—I don't know anyone who goes to the bar for their health. Smokers need a place to go. Don't drive them into the closet.”
The MTA is concerned their organization will become linked with Keck's effort to exempt bars and casinos from the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act. Along with being a past MTA president, Keck has been a member of the organization for three decades, and is considered “a walking encyclopedia of the history of—and institutional memory for—the MTA, which holds him in great esteem.”
“Darrell, some people will not make the distinction between you and the MTA,” said board member and Bozeman tavern owner Bob Fletcher at the meeting, according to the Montana Tavern Times. “You are the grandfather of the MTA. I joined the MTA to be a guy like you, so I'm really sorry you're doing this. It will hurt the MTA.”
Keck's wish that the MTA remain neutral regarding his plans for the legislature didn't come to fruition, and the Times reported that the organization's full executive board voted overwhelmingly to “oppose any changes or amendments to the original bill and will expect all other parties to the original compromise to do the same.” Keck cast one of only two dissenting votes on the matter.
Sen. Black told the Associated Press he isn't sure if he will draft the bill, saying it most likely has “mixed to nil” chances of becoming law.
“We just feel the Indoor Clean Air Act is working the way it should,” Black told the AP. “This [exemption] still gives people a choice.”
“This is a health care issue for Montanans,” argued Kristin Page Nei, state government relations spokesperson for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, according to the AP. “What's really important to note is Montanans understand that. We feel all workers, including casino workers, have the right to breathe clean indoor air.”
In a statewide telephone poll commissioned in September by health advocacy groups including the American Cancer Society, it was determined that 79 percent of Montana voters favor the Clean Indoor Air Act, and 20 percent oppose it (the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent).
“We feel that four years, going on five years, is more than enough time for bars and casinos to comply,” Nei told the AP.
Montana House Rep. Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman) told the Pioneer he doesn't think the smoking exemption for bars and casinos will be re-examined during the 2009 Montana Legislative Session.
“There was a negotiated settlement for a four-year extension,” said Washburn. “I don't think you should back out on an agreement. Neither does the MTA. This won't fly in the legislature.”