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Smoking ban gains ground

By Michael Davis

Georgia legislators passed bills this week that would make it tougher to find a place to light up in Georgia, but easier to play the state's lottery.

Senate Bill 507, titled the Georgia Smokefree Air Act, prohibits smoking inside most public buildings. The bill's sponsors say it will give Georgians the right to breathe clean air but some business owners, especially restaurant owners, say the bill infringes on their rights. The bill passed the Senate 45-7.

The original, much stricter bill, would have eliminated smoking in all public buildings except some hotel rooms, tobacco shops and nursing homes.

But several amendments were added to the bill to make it more appealing to senators.

Under the law, which now must pass the House and be approved by the governor, small businesses with seven or fewer employees, some hotel rooms and bars that earn less than 20 percent of their total revenue from food sales would be exempt.

California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maine, New York, and Utah all prohibit smoking in restaurants. Several cities and counties in Georgia have also recently passed similar bans.

Supporting the bill, Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, an executive with the Waffle House chain, said local bans hurt restaurants because diners choose to eat where they can smoke.

"I'm for this because it puts us on level playing field statewide," he said.

Butch Foshee, owner of Arctic Circle Bar and Grill in Stockbridge, said that the ban would cut his business by 20 percent and "put a burden on me to enforce the law."

"Me, being a private business, if I choose to have smoking, that is my right and if you choose not to come, that is your right and I have to bear the consequences," he said, adding that the ban was an attempt by legislators to over-regulate private enterprise.

But while some restaurant and bar owners are afraid the ban will drive away customers and eventually drive them out of business, others say it may be a good way to go smoke-free without angering clientele.

"I think it would take the pressure off," said Sharon Merritt, owner of Gritz on the McDonough Square. She said state-imposed ban would probably be good for her business.

"If anything, it would probably help business more than hurt it," she said, adding that she's sure at least some potential customers turn away because of the smoke.

Ronnie Cotton, owner of J.R. Cricket's franchises in Riverdale and Union City, agreed that the ban would likely increase business at his Riverdale location. The Union City store has never allowed smoking.

"Eventually people would get used to it," he said. "About 80 percent of my clientele doesn't smoke anyway."

Smokers caught breaking the law would be fined $50-$100 and while building owners would pay $100 for the first violation and up to $500 if caught three times in less than a year.

The bill will now go to the state House where some predict it has an uncertain future.

Other legislative news

A bill that would allow the nation's first online lottery sales sailed through the House this week, despite lottery officials' concerns over whether electronic ticket sales were even legal.

The measure, passed by the House 131-32, would allow lottery officials to design a system in which individual players could establish a deposit account with the Georgia Lottery, monitor that account and play lottery games using money from that account.

The bill specifies that account shall not pay interest and that only $5 a day can be used to play.

Sponsors say the bill is designed to help boost ticket sales in an effort to shore up the popular but ailing HOPE Scholarship which is funded by the lottery but convenience stores oppose it because they would take a hit on sales commissions.

Some are predicting the bill will have problems in the state Senate and a U.S. Senate committee approved in July, a bill that would prohibit on-line gaming.

The House also missed a Mar. 1 deadline to draw new district maps and approve Senate maps. Tuesday, House Democrats delayed a vote on new maps, even though the deadline had already passed.

A special master appointed by three-judge federal panel that threw out the maps is expected to have new maps ready by March 15 for discussion.

Sen. Tom Price, R-Roswell, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, said lawmakers will have input into the maps only as far as the "principles they're using" to draw them?equal population and the Voting Rights Act.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.