Local Commentary

News from the Coffin Corner: Delegate Hull’s Richmond Report

Halfway Home

This past Tuesday was Crossover in the General Assembly. It has nothing to do with the River Styx; it is the legislative half-way point.

Crossover is the day that all action on the legislation introduced in each chamber must be concluded.

The Monday and Tuesday of Crossover are busy as House and Senate work on the last bills reported from committees.

There are always more bills introduced in the House of Delegates, so we are always a little busier than the Senate on Crossover.

For example, Senators were at their desks for three hours on Monday, but the House was in session for 10-1/2 hours.

Battle for Your Lungs

Of the hundreds of bills acted upon in the House before Crossover, the most controversial was the restaurant smoking ban bill.

Several bills were introduced on this topic this year and they all were sent to the General Laws Committee on which I serve.

Governor Kaine has been persistent in his efforts to ban smoking in restaurants, but the House Republican majority has not been friendly to it.

Last week, the Governor and the House Speaker negotiated a compromise which came up in committee on Thursday.

I liked the general direction of the compromise and worked during debate on the bill to clarify and strengthen some provisions.

It is not an outright ban on smoking in restaurants, but mandates that smoking areas must be behind floor to ceiling walls with separate ventilation.

I supported a committee amendment to say that the air in the smoking area not be recirculated throughout the restaurant, but separately vented.

I also proposed an amendment that local fines for non compliance that go into local general funds must be expended for health related purposes.

The compromise bill passed the committee by a 12 to 6 vote with my support. The strength of the bill was that it kept the Indoor Clean Air Act intact.

That is important because that section of the Code of Virginia also mandates smoke free workplaces and schools.

No One Happy

But, then the parties to the compromise got upset with even the clarifying changes we made to the bill.

I was not able to attend the General Laws Committee meeting the next day when the vote on the bill was reconsidered.

The committee then stripped out the amendments we made and the pure compromise was reported to the House floor.

When the bill was considered on second reading on Monday, the word was that we should vote for the pure compromise and send it to the Senate.

The idea was that once it passed the Senate, then the Governor would send down clarifying amendments like the ones we considered in committee.

The problem was that the opponents to the bill were not about to lay down and see that happen.

So, during floor debate, a majority of Republicans and some Democrats approved amendments to weaken the bill.

Some changes were reasonable, such as giving more time for restaurants to comply. But, other amendments were troubling.

I spoke out against one amendment which allows restaurants to become smoking only during any time in which minors are not permitted in the restaurant.

I reminded my colleagues that people of all ages are bothered by smoke in a restaurant. Unfortunately, all of these amendments were approved.

Even though I disagreed with the amendments, I supported the underlying bill and I voted for it. It now goes to the Senate for their consideration.

Hopefully, we can clean up the language later. As that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, said: “It ain’t over until its over.”