By JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Despite nagging differences between the House and Senate, supporters of a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars said they are confident the bill will become law.
Delegate Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George's, casually dismissed any notion that differences between the two chambers could not be ultimately resolved.
"It's going to pass ... I'm very confident," said Davis, chairman of the House's Economic Matters Committee, which heard the bill.
The smoking ban, which has been heavily opposed by restaurants owners who contend it will hurt their business, took another incremental step toward becoming law on Tuesday when the House approved the Senate's version of the ban in a 99 to 39 vote. And on the Senate side, the House version of the ban came out of committee and will shortly be heard on that chamber's floor.
However, differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill remain, and before it can be enacted and sent to the governor, both houses must pass the same version.
And, these differences have proven to be a sticking point that could stand in the way of an otherwise quick passage. The House is against exemptions to the ban for some cigar stores and private clubs that would be allowed under the Senate version.
The Senate's version would give local health officials the authority to determine which businesses may qualify for waivers of the ban based upon loss of business. The House version, by contrast, would give this authority to the state health secretary in conjunction with the comptroller. Sponsors said the persistent differences between the two chambers will have to be ironed out in a conference committee.
Davis said that the conflicting interests between the two chambers are normal.
"They're going to reject our (version of the bill). We're going to reject theirs," Davis said.
A longtime sponsor of the smoking ban, Delegate Barbara A. Frush, D- Prince George's, echoed Davis' confidence. She said that "there are too many people that want it to go through" for the bill not to become law. This support exists outside the General Assembly. According to a recent poll by the Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies a record-high 72 percent of Maryland voters support the legislation.
Frush also said that the committee chairs Davis and Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, responsible for coming up with a compromise, won't let their differences stand in the way. "I think they both have the best interests of the state at heart. I know that they will come up with a reasonable agreement. At least I hope so," said Delegate Barbara A. Frush, D- Prince George's.