When House legislators passed a "smoking shack" amendment to their finance bill late Thursday, bar and restaurant owner Charles Senkler counted the bipartisan vote as a tiny victory.

The 73-59 vote shortly before midnight would allow smokers to light up in fully enclosed areas outside bars and restaurants. The shelters could be as crude as a lean-to or as elaborate as the owners can afford. Food and beverages couldn't be served in them.

"It won't do much for us," said Senkler, owner of Fabulous Ferns, a Crocus Hill watering hole within eyeshot of the State Capitol in St. Paul. "But it'll help the small guys up north. This smoking ban is killing them."

Senkler already has his own version of a smoking shack. Smokers at Fern's can puff away on a semi-enclosed patio where they can view the outdoors through a thick curtain of plastic strips. Tables and chairs are available for outdoor diners, but are strictly off-limits to smokers, who must stand.

"It's the best we can do," said Senkler, who calls the ban "stupid." The statewide indoor smoking ban that went into effect last October brought cheers from nonsmokers and brought a sharp spike in the number of smokers seeking to quit. A recent University of Minnesota study showed that cancer risks among servers has dropped because of the law.

But the ban has also sparked a minor rebellion among frustrated smoking patrons and owners who have watched their business -- and bankbooks -- dwindle.

"It cost us about 12 percent of our late-night liquor -- about 10 grand a month," Senkler said. "And we're lucky. Lots of others have lost more."

In the wake of the ban, some bars began holding "theater nights," taking advantage of a loophole in the law that allowed smoking in theatrical productions. Health officials have started to crack down on that.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, who supports the amendment, said Friday that bar and restaurant owners are being hurt and need help. The Legislature, he said, needs to offer some relief.

But House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said that she doubts the amendment, which was inserted into a massive budget bill, would survive a conference committee. The DFL-led Senate remains opposed to any changes in the smoking ban.

Governor might support it

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a supporter of the ban, said Friday that he does not want to see it diluted but would consider the proposal if it reached his desk.

Backers of the ban say the exception could lead to huge shelters going up outside bars and VFWs, eroding the law.

"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."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288