Dec 21, 2008

Newspaper editor continuers to display his ignorance of the legislative process with opinion on smoking ban

An Open Letter to Rich Perlberg, the general manager and executive editor of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, on his latest column on the workplace smoking ban.

Your column and the paper’s editorial stand on the smoking ban demonstrated a disturbing lack of understanding of both the issue and the legislative process. The column is especially disturbing considering it is coming from someone who has been in journalism for some 20 years.

First, secondhand smoke is deadly, and it’s far from a mere annoyance. The U.S. Surgeon General has been saying that since 1986. Now, you may choose not to go to your favorite place for a beer and a burger because of a small minority of people who still smoke, but what about the employees who have to choose between health and a needed job? Where is their choice?

You keep blaming Andy Dillon and the House Democrats for the failure, but you ignore Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop‘s role. The House passed a smoking ban way back in December 2007 after taking testimony in committee. Prior to the 10 previous years the ban had been pending, it never got so much as a committee hearing. Detroit lawmakers wanted the casino exception because they are under the mistaken belief the Detroit area casinos will lose business to the Native American casinos. They weighed the short-term jobs issue in an already depressed area against the long term health effects.

Once the bill was sent to the Senate, Bishop tried to bury it by sending it to the committee he chaired. This committee has never met, and it’s where bills go to die. He publicly said he would never allow a vote because he’s against it. Only the pressure from the public forced his hand and he allowed the bill to be discharged to the full Senate floor without a hearing. The sponsor of the Senate smoking ban, Sen. Ray Basham, introduced a substitute to the House version with no exceptions. That passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

The House balked, and instead of concurring in the Senate sub, they sent back a substitute to another bill with the same exceptions. Bishop declined to allow a vote on that bill. Finally in September, Dillon allowed a vote on the total ban, but it failed 50-49. It needed a majority of the 110 members to pass.

Dillon then took the bull by the horns a few weeks ago and assigned a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate passed version. The two Democratic members of the committee voted for both versions of the bill. It took Bishop almost a week to assign his three members to the committee as the clock ticked down to Sine Die. The two Republicans members he assigned to the committee were two of the most conservative Senators in the Senate, and they both voted against the bill.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning as a possible compromise was reached, the Republican members of the conference committee never even bothered to show up.

You and the editorial board have called this important health care issue trivial, saying things like “Why doesn't the Legislature balance the budget, provide fair and equitable funding for public education, and eliminate odious business taxes?”

There are 148 lawmakers. How many people can get in a room and negotiate over tax policy, the budget and education funding?

That’s why the Legislature is broken down into committees of five to nine people. It’s much easier for that small group to negotiate and then make a recommendation to the full House and Senate to debate and vote on. Could you imagine the din and confusion if 110 people tried to negotiate?

There are 18 standing committees in the Senate and 24 in the House dealing with specific areas, from Agriculture to Transportation, and it’s much easier to work in small groups and present the result to the larger group to vote on. As for the budget, it’s so important that the appropriations committee is broken down into even smaller subcommittees - 16 in the Senate and 19 in the House - that deals with each state department.

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