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Smoking ban clears committee

By Justin Boron

Stockbridge restaurant and bar owner George Kopanezos said he is happy to accommodate a statewide smoking ban in Gregory's Steak House.

Given the recent amendment to the bill, he said he may even raise the age limit at the Penalty Box Sports Bar to 21.

"It's probably for the best," the 35-year old said. "I just get complaints from customer's . . . that takes the burden off me."

The Georgia Senate has already passed a statewide ban on smoking in almost all buildings open to the public, including bars. A House committee changed the bill to allow bars and restaurants where the minimum age for entry is 18 to allow indoor smoking.

The House Health & Human Services Committee also exempted smoking lounges at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport because of concerns that people who had been on long flights wouldn't be able to step outside during a layover. Another exemption was added for business conventions where no minors are present.

With the changes, the bill passed the committee 10-5. It now awaits scheduling for a full vote by the House.

The smoking ban remains controversial in the House, though, and its future is far from certain. Last year, Democratic leaders snuffed out the bill when they ran the House, and new Republican leaders have also criticized the plan. House Speaker Glenn Richardson even called it "un-American" to force a private business to ban smoking.

Some Republicans said the public health problem of secondhand smoke should outweigh complaints of government intervention.

"I'm certainly a small-government person, but unfortunately smokers are creating big government" because of health costs from smoking, said Rep. Jeff Brown, R-LaGrange. "A lot of smokers don't show good judgment and they invade on my rights."

Others disagreed. "We are really going against what we in America consider freedom," said Rep. Gene Maddox, R-Cairo.

Rep. Ron Dodson, I-Lake City, who sits on Health & Human Services, said he was disappointed the exclusions were given. He argued it would open up loopholes and make the law more difficult to enforce.

Jack Hancock, chairman of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said since the smoking ban would be statewide, it shouldn't be a problem for businesses because it creates a level playing field.

The threat of running smokers to bars in neighboring jurisdictions has hindered efforts to pass smoking bans in some cities and counties around the state.

Nevertheless, more than two dozen local governments in Georgia already have smoking bans, some of them stricter than the version considered by the House. The bill would allow local governments to pass or enforce stronger bans if they wish.

Voting Districts delayed

Senate Republicans who postponed voting Tuesday on a new U.S. House map say the delay was caused by confusion over a typographical error and that their map does not need to be changed.

Senate leaders abruptly yanked the plan shortly before a vote was scheduled, saying they needed to study new data to avoid weakening minority voting strength in the Atlanta area.

Hours later, they said it was all a misunderstanding.

Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the chamber's redistricting committee chairman, said a typo in the Legislature's map-drawing office made it appear there were roughly 50,000 people in a precinct that really has 5,000.

If those numbers were accurate, it would have dropped the black voting-age population in Congressman John Lewis's district to below 50 percent.

"We have learned it was simply a data entry error," Rogers said. "The numbers we have are in fact correct."

Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature this year for the first time since Reconstruction, complain that Georgia's current congressional map - drawn in 2001 - was unfairly crafted to give the then-Democratic majority a political advantage.

They say their proposal, which already was approved in the House, replaces the current map's bizarre district shapes with compact districts that keep as many cities, counties and voting precincts together as possible.

Georgia, like other states with a segregationist past, must get all changes to voting laws approved by the federal government. A map can be thrown out if a federal judge rules it weakens the voting strength of blacks and other minorities.

Lawmakers review court security

Hiring inspectors to rate security in Georgia courthouses was among the ideas on the table as lawmakers Wednesday began studying responses to last week's shootings in Atlanta.

Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, chairman of the Senate's public safety committee, said creating two new state inspectors - like ones that currently inspect jails - could help avoid scenes like Friday's shooting rampage that ultimately killed four people.

"It kind of jumped out at me that maybe we can get this done for courthouses, too," said Kemp. "If we had people trained to come in and look for things that maybe people who are there every day don't notice, it might help."

HB 67 protects private clubs from gays

Private clubs that ban gays from membership would get extra legal protection under a bill approved Thursday by the state Senate.

The plan, which already passed in the House, is aimed at a fight between Atlanta city government and Druid Hills Golf Club.

The club does not extend the same benefits to the partners of gay members that it does to the spouses of married members. Two members of the club appealed to the city, and Mayor Shirley Franklin said the club should be fined $500 a day for the policy, although that fine has not been collected.

The golf club is private, but its facility is regularly used for public events like weddings and parties.

The club, in turn, is suing the city.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.