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Support for Tobacco Bill Goes Up in Smoke : Assembly: For a moment it looked as though a measure backed by cigarette companies had passed. Then the weirdness began.

June 03, 1993|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — For a split second, Assemblyman Curtis Tucker Jr. had pulled off a coup, or so it seemed.

Near the end of a rancorous Assembly session Tuesday, the Democratic lawmaker from Inglewood lined up a surprising 41-vote majority for his tobacco bill, one backed by cigarette companies and disdained by health groups.

To the surprise and momentary delight of tobacco lobbyists, the 41-vote majority flashed on the Assembly's two electronic tally boards, the equivalent of a scoreboard at a sporting event.

Then the weirdness began--as it has repeatedly in this year's legislative tobacco war. Several of Tucker's shaky supporters peeled off, changing their "aye" votes to "no." The bill fell four votes short.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 4, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Vote on smoking--The Times on Thursday incorrectly reported that a so-called ghost vote was cast on behalf of Assemblywoman Kathleen Honeycutt (R-Hesperia) on a smoking bill by Assemblyman Curtis Tucker Jr. Honeycutt, who was absent from the Tuesday vote, said she supported the bill but would never allow a vote to be cast in her absence.

Tucker is unbowed. Knowing he had the majority even for an instant, Tucker vows to put the legislation to a vote again, as early as today. Wednesday, Tucker did not have time to discuss the fight because he was too busy lining up support, an aide said. At the same time, lobbyists on both sides of the bill were buttonholing Assembly members.

"We're hoping sanity prevails in the Capitol," Anthony Najera, of the America Lung Assn. of California, said Wednesday of the prospect that Tucker's bill would pass.

The episode provides a lesson in the tobacco industry's continued sway over the Capitol. Anti-smoking forces started the year with high hopes for several bills that attack smoking, yet in one of the most emotional legislative fights of the year they nearly emerged with a significant defeat.

"It shows the Legislature is totally out of touch," said UC San Francisco medical professor Stanton Glantz, "and it's why people hold them in disrepute. . . . These guys serve the special interests."

Anti-smoking activists note the mounting scientific evidence about the ill effects of secondhand smoke, even as pollsters find strong support for smoking bans. Researchers say that only 20% of California's populace smokes.

Glantz likened Tucker's bill to "the Legislature passing a law that says people have to breathe diesel fumes--indoors." But Glantz, an anti-smoking advocate who has studied tobacco lobbying in Sacramento, was not surprised at the results. The tobacco industry reports giving $7.6 million in 1991-92 campaigns and lobbying in California.

Tucker insists that his bill is not sponsored by the tobacco industry. But in breaks, Tucker confers with tobacco lobbyists and lets them use office phones--a courtesy lawmakers commonly extend to their supporters. One of the Legislature's few smokers, Tucker maintains that people ought to have the right to light up.

His bill would prohibit cities from restricting smoking after April, 1993, which would preempt ordinances in Los Angeles, among other municipalities.

The bill purports to ban smoking in the workplace, but exempts factories, bars and any business with 15 or fewer employees--the majority of all workplaces. Tucker's bill would exempt restaurants with fewer than 50 seats, and would prohibit workers from pressing lawsuits against employers for smoking-related illnesses.

Tucker acknowledges that he introduced his legislation to divert support from fellow Democratic Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman's bill to ban smoking in all indoor workplaces.

Critics of Friedman's measure say it is too rigid. It would ban smoking in all buildings where people work, even in a two-person business where both people smoke. The ban would apply to hospitals and nursery schools, the same as it would to pool halls.

Friedman, whose bill received 34 votes in the 80-member Assembly, also intends to seek another vote on his bill as early as today.

If either measure is revived, it would be in keeping with the bizarre nature of the bitter fight over smoking.

There is, for example, the matter of the lobbying firm of Heim, Noack & Spahnn. In a letter written on behalf of the Building Owners and Managers Assn., Leslie Spahnn, a partner in the firm, endorsed Friedman's bill. Partners in the firm, including Spahnn, also sent a letter on behalf of the California Hotel and Motel Assn. opposing Friedman's smoking ban. Spahnn could not be reached.

Perhaps the strangest twist of all came at the close of business on Tuesday when Tucker, for an instant, got 41 votes. In the trading and deal making that goes on, members often switch their votes before and even after the final tally is locked in.

At least three members supported the Friedman and Tucker bills.

Once it looked as if Tucker's bill would pass, four "aye" votes changed--including one briefly recorded by Kathleen Honeycutt (R-Hesperia). Honeycutt was not even in the state on Tuesday, let alone at her Assembly desk. The practice of so-called ghost voting is against Assembly rules, but commonly occurs.

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