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Bill exempts casinos from smoking ban

| Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006

Allegheny County is already choking on its day-old smoking ban.

Some County Council members Wednesday said they were "blindsided" by language in a state Senate bill passed yesterday that exempts casinos from local anti-smoking legislation, even though the county proposal had been in the public domain for months.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who on Tuesday said he was inclined to support the ban, threatened yesterday to veto it.

The state's exemption and the county's inclusion in the ban "would create an unfair advantage for casinos," said Onorato spokeswoman Megan Dardanell.

"We heard about the (Senate bill's) passing, and there was some surprise it made it out." The smoking ban, which County Council approved 14-1 Tuesday night, would prohibit smoking in bars, restaurants and other public areas, including casinos.

Council President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, the ban's primary sponsor, said the Senate's action might force council to withdraw the ordinance.

"We need to rethink the whole bill," Fitzgerald said yesterday. "The rug got pulled out from under us."

The Senate bill now goes to the House, which could amend, approve or reject it.

"We were blindsided," said County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park. "I think it is (state legislators') obligation to come to us. They had a break of how many weeks• This was out there, and none of them came to us• We live in their hometowns, they should be chasing us around."

While County Council apparently was unaware of the Senate's smoking exemption, Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny County, who sponsored the gambling reform bill in which it was included, was equally unaware of County Council's intention to adopt a smoking ban. "I'm not a soothsayer," Orie said. "I can't say that the day we passed this out of committee the county passes legislation to ban smoking." Gastgeb, along with Councilmen Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, and John DeFazio, D-Shaler, agreed council should quickly come together and lobby local lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell to exempt the county from any law allowing smoking in casinos. If that fails, council might have to consider withdrawing its bill, they said. "The main concern I've had all along was the business community," said Gastgeb, who worries that smaller bars and restaurants would face a competitive disadvantage if smoking is permitted at a Pittsburgh slot machine casino, but nowhere else. "If the playing field is level, that's one thing. But now it's not." Gary Tuma, an aide to Sen. Vince Fumo, D-Philadelphia, said the amendment to the gambling reform bill was intended primarily to protect Philadelphia's casinos from losing revenue to out-of-state venues that permit smoking in casinos. A smoking ban approved last week in Philadelphia exempted casinos anyway. "The experience in other states has shown considerable drops in revenue" if casinos are smoke-free, Tuma said. "The drops are 20 to 30 percent. In a city like Pittsburgh, it could be an $80 million, $100 million loss. We're relying on revenue from the casinos for property tax reductions." Christopher Craig, general counsel to Fumo, said the smoking provision was in the bill when it surfaced in June, but there was no vote then. It has been available on the Internet as part of the Senate amendment for several weeks. Jared Barker, County Council's director of legislative services, said he traced printer's numbers, assigned each time a bill is amended, and found the smoking amendment did not appear until Sept. 19 -- a week before County Council's final vote on the ban. The bill was not released from the Senate Rules Committee until Tuesday. "There were not discussions (about the amendment)," Barker said. "What you saw in (Tuesday night's council) meeting reflects the discussions held." This isn't the first time County Council's ability to legislate smoking has been questioned. Shortly after Fitzgerald proposed the smoking ban in July, county Solicitor Mike Wojcik and County Council solicitor Jack Cambest offered opposing interpretations of the state's Clean Indoor Air Act of 1988. Wojcik said the act preserves the state's right to regulate smoking. A 1999 bill reversed that decision, and appeared to allow counties to regulate certain activities, including smoking. But then lawmakers, feeling they had erred, restored the state's right to regulate smoking, Wojcik said. Cambest and several anti-smoking groups believe that lawmakers acted illegally and that counties' rights are preserved. Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report.

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