By BOB ANEZ
Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A statewide smoking ban moved within one more vote of passing the Montana Legislature late Wednesday night when the Senate endorsed a bill that would outlaw smoking in almost all public places beginning in less than six months.
The measure, tentatively approved 40-10, prompted arguments over whether lawmakers should agree to a deal struck by traditional foes in the debate over smoking. The bill faces a final Senate vote today before being sent to the governor.
Negotiated between public health organizations and the tavern industry, the bill prohibits smoking in all places open to the public starting Oct. 1. The ban will not apply to bars until four years after that.
The bill also forbids minors to be in places where smoking is allowed, and prevents any local government from adopting a more strict smoking law for four years.
The tavern industry sees the legislation as giving it stability for the next four years in what has become an escalating battle over smoking. It also likes that the bill prevents a patchwork of local smoking ordinances for a while, gives bar owners time to prepare for the ban to affect them, and avoids the prospects of a ballot measure that would impose a harsher ban.
The health organizations benefit because the bill imposes the state's first widespread ban and permits local governments to eventually enact versions with tougher penalties for violations. The organizations also will avoid the expense of a costly initiative campaign against smoking.
Sen. Mike Wheat, D-Bozeman, cautioned against changing the bill that he said represents a shaky compromise between the two sides, who have been longtime foes over the issue of smoking bans and how broadly they should be applied.
''Let both sides of this issue work their way forward over the next four years toward a smoke-free environment in public places, and allow bars and gaming industry retrofit for that change,'' he said.
If the bill fails, the result will be a ballot measure to impose a statewide ban that may be more distasteful than the one contained in this measure, Wheat said.
That argument chafed Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel, who said legislators should not have to toe the line on an issue simply because opposing sides have hammered out an agreement among themselves.
''We can craft a bill that does what they want it to do and we can have a say in it too,'' he said. ''We're the ones who decide what should and should not be and what should be in the bill. It's not our job to rubber-stamp their agreement.''
Wheat said the Legislature is not surrendering its responsibility in approving the bill. Rather, it is merely recognizing the hard work of those who fashioned the compromise and the benefits that the ban will have for many Montanans.
''I think our job is to come here and, if somebody crafts some kind of an agreement that helps solve a social problem, then I think we ought to recognize that because it does good for everybody,'' he said.
But Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, said the bill goes too far in trying to change people's behavior when it comes to lighting up a cigarette.
''Smoking is just plain stupid,'' he said. ''But if this Legislature decided to outlaw stupidity, I think two-thirds of us would be behind bars. I just don't think we can legislate against stupidity.''
Balyeat assailed the measure as a product of a ''back-room deal'' in which those involved bargained away other people's property rights.
Sen. Jerry O'Neil, saying the bill is an affront to those rights, failed in an effort to exempt private office buildings and offices from the ban. The Kalispell Republican said the ban should not be allowed to reach into people's homes where some offices or other businesses are located.
While some senators complained of the ban's long reach, others said the fallout will not be so great.
Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manahattan, said the state doesn't have enough ''smoking police'' to check up on every office, building and business in Montana.
''It's more a principle here than anything,'' he said of the bill.
''When we pass this bill,'' added Sen. Rick Laible, R-Victor, ''the world will continue to go on as it is. We will have some cheats. That's the way it is. This is another message bill.''
The bill is House Bill 643.