Minnesota's three-year-old statewide smoking ban is lighting up a new proposal.

A bipartisan team of legislators is working to repeal part of the ban, seeking to make it legal for Minnesotans to smoke in bars that also serve food.

The proposal, which awaits a hearing, would allow smoking in bars that provide a room sealed off from the adjoining restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling walls and a ventilation system that exchanges the indoor air every two hours. Smoking would still be banned in the remainder of the restaurant.

Since the state ban became law in October 2007, supporters and opponents have continued arguing about the extent to which it has financially affected bars and restaurants.

The latest push appears to be finding some support among Republicans, who now control the House and Senate and who see the ban as a government intrusion on personal freedom.

"It's really about freedom of choice," said Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, the proposal's chief Senate author. "People have the choice to pick and decide if they want to go to a bar or restaurant that allows smoking or doesn't allow smoking."

Antismoking groups have begun gearing up for the fight. The American Cancer Society of Minnesota's website is urging supporters to "Ask Your Senator to Protect Freedom to Breathe."

Matt Schafer, state government relations director for the Cancer Society, said the proposed ventilation requirements would not remove carcinogens from the air caused by secondhand smoke. "If you're looking for a poster child for pro-cancer legislation, these bills would be it," he said.

Schafer said that people have become accustomed to the ban, and that Minnesota is a healthier state for going smoke-free.

But Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, majority caucus whip, said his concerns are not necessarily health-related. "My philosophy is to stand with small businesses," he said. "Reducing smoking should not be a government mandate."

Among bar owners, opinion is divided.

For Clarence (Flem) Fleming, there is no question why his business at the Terminal Bar on Minneapolis' E. Hennepin Avenue has gone downhill. Ever since the smoking ban prevented customers from lighting up while they drink, he said, the bar has had to close nearly five hours a day because of slow business.

"I want my customers back," said Fleming, who has run the bar with his wife for 46 years.

Fleming points out that lost customers mean lost revenue for the state. If the ban is lifted for bars and restaurants, he said, business "positively would pick up."

Others are happily smoke-free and want to stay that way.

"I don't know who's trying to back this up and why they're doing it, but I'm totally against it," said Jim Johnsen, owner of Obb's Sports Bar & Grill in St. Paul. "I think it's the craziest thing in the world."

Johnsen said his customers are happy and business at Obb's is up from what it was prior to the smoking ban. "Everyone's gotten used to it," he said.

The proposed legislation would set deadlines for bars that also serve food to install ventilation systems, based on their alcohol sales. For businesses whose alcohol sales were 40 percent of gross sales, a ventilation system would have to be installed by June 2012.

For those with alcohol sales equaling 60 percent of gross sales, the deadline would be June 2014. For those with more than 80 percent, the deadline would be June 2017.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said the political climate at the State Capitol could work against maintaining a total ban. With so many new legislators at the Capitol this session, he said, he would not dismiss the possibility of the bill passing. "I think they're closing their eyes to the science and the evidence and are engaging in wishful thinking," he said of the plan's proponents.

Gov. Mark Dayton, the new DFL governor, has not stated a position on the proposal.

Dibble compared the state smoking ban to other government health regulations like those involving food safety and fire codes.

"We provide for basic levels of safety and health. That's our role and responsibility through common-sense regulation," he said.

McKenzie Martin is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673