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House backs 'smoking shack' measure

ST. PAUL -- Some bars are pegging their survival hopes on "smoking shacks."

Numerous rural representatives said during a marathon House session Thursday and Friday that allowing smokers to light up in shelters near bars could save those businesses. Rural Democrats joined Republicans to approve 73-59 what Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, called "smoking shacks."

The provision, placed in a 370-page House budget-balancing bill, would provide bars with a loophole to the statewide smoking ban lawmakers passed last year. They could build a "structure located outside of an establishment that provides shelter for persons smoking outdoors," according to Heidgerken's provision.

No drinks or food could be served in a smoking shack.

"I think what you would see is a little fish house out there; that would be about it," Heidgerken said in offering his amendment.

The amendment came about, he said, because so many bars are going out of business. That is happening across the state, rural lawmakers said.

"I have a lot of friends losing their businesses, and it doesn't have anything to do with the economy," Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said. "It is because of people like me who like to drink, smoke and swear."

Since lawmakers passed a statewide smoking ban last year, bar owners have complained they are losing business because drinkers often like to smoke and now opt not to frequent bars.

The smoking shack concept is far from law. The Senate has no similar provision, but since the House backed the smoking shack idea, it could become part of negotiations between the two chambers. Heidgerken said Friday that he will seek a Senate sponsor for the concept before legislators go home May 19.

One rural representative after another stood up during House debate, arguing to give bars a break from the 2007 law banning smoking from almost every public place.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, held up a soft-drink bottle and told his colleagues: "I spent a lot of time the last few weekends going to bars -- drinking my Diet Pepsi and asking what the smoking ban does for them." He learned that it hurts.

"This is about jobs," Urdahl added.

The House sponsor of the smoking ban opposed smoking shacks.

"What this is doing is chipping away at the Freedom to Breathe Act," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said he, too, is afraid Heidgerken's provision would weaken the smoking ban.

"This is a huge loophole," Paymar said.

Huntley was concerned that the Heidgerken amendment did not define a smoking shack.

Employees would not be required to be in the shack, so no one who wanted to avoid smoke would be forced to breathe any in, Heidgerken said.

Many lawmakers who supported the smoking ban a year ago backed Heidgerken, who voted against the overall budget bill that contains the smoking shack provision.

"I voted for the smoking ban; I still support the smoking ban," Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Mora, said. "But this is a good option."

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said charitable gambling receipts are down 35 percent for an organization to which he belongs. Much of that drop, he added, is because smoking no longer is allowed in bars.

"The charities are going to start going out of business," he said.

Dill, who said he never has smoked, supports the outdoor smoking area because during the winter bar customers stood outside smoking in below-zero weather.

Bars in his area near an American Indian casino are losing smokers' businesses "because they go over to the casino to smoke." Indian casinos are not covered by Minnesota's smoking ban -- one of the complaints opponents raised during last year's debate.

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said bars in his area already are building smoking shacks.

"They are designing them on skids like we design cattle barns," he said. "This is minimal, the least we can do. ... Give those people a chance."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.