It was well past dark when Minnesota House members shifted their attention from the budget to an area of perhaps greater public concern: smoking at bars and restaurants.
An amendment added late Thursday to a supersized budget bill would poke a slight hole in the no-exceptions smoking ban that took hold in October. Smokers could come in from the cold and light up in "smoking shacks" described by one supporter as "little fish houses."
The House plan to attack the $935 million deficit passed early Friday after more than 14 hours of debate. The Senate gave preliminary approval to its own mega-budget bill on Thursday evening, setting up the three-way talks that will bring the 2008 session to a close.
Democratic House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said Friday that negotiators will be named next week to start piecing together a final budget that includes elements of both bills and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's recommendations.
The smoking debate replayed last year's hottest issue, calling forth impassioned arguments about the survival of small taverns and the lungs of wait staff.
In a 73-59 vote, the House voted to allow smoking in shelters outside of establishments, though the smokers would have to do without food or drink service. Smoking ban supporters warned that the change could open the door to "mischief," but the DFL and GOP defenders of bar and restaurant owners overruled them. Forty-two Republicans and 31 DFLers voted in favor of the amendment; 53 DFLers and six Republicans opposed it.
"This is an environmental vote if you think about it, because all those butts are ending up on the street with those people standing out there," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.
Lighting up would be legal "in a structure located outside of an establishment that provides shelter for persons smoking outdoors," but the provision doesn't spell out further details.
Backers of the smoking ban warned that the exception could lead to huge shelters going up outside bars and VFWs, weakening a law viewed by many as a major health improvement. One opponent noted that establishments tried to exploit the ban's exception for theatrical productions by staging smoker-friendly "theater nights."
"We saw the mischief that happened when we had that little loophole with the theaters," said Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul. "This is a huge loophole."
Smoking shacks have a long way to go before becoming law — both the Senate and Pawlenty would have to agree to the policy change. Conference committee negotiators will be under pressure from anti-smoking groups to kill the provision.
Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she voted against the smoke shack amendment and did not think it would survive a conference committee. The amendment has no companion in the Senate budget bill that passed on Thursday.
But the issue is one that has DFLers divided. Seated next to her at a Friday morning press briefing, House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisolm, said the proposal was needed for rural bars and restaurants that are teetering on the economic brink. The Legislature, he said, should recognize the economic impact of the smoking ban and offer some relief.
Pawlenty said Friday morning that he did not want to see the smoking ban diluted, but would consider the proposal if it reached his desk.
Staff writer Patricia Lopez contributed to this report.