The General Assembly made great strides in the last week on legislation that was difficult to deal with, or has been in the past.
Most notably, the House and Senate agreed on a revised Basic Education Program formula that will restore equity in the distribution of state funds, and voted overwhelmingly to ban smoking in most indoor workplaces, a pet proposal by Gov. Phil Bredesen.
As sent to Bredesen, the smoking ban established some exemptions that weren't in the governor's original bill, but it included restaurants, to the everlasting joy of diners, as well as cooks and waiters, who will not have to suffer the dangers of inhaling second-hand smoke anymore.
Bars that don't allow people under age 21 inside were exempted from the mandatory ban, along with private clubs and businesses with three or fewer employees. Such locations are free to enact their own smoking rules or prohibitions, and some already have.
The health of millions of Tennesseans was at stake, and the lawmakers have ultimately decided that protecting that health was more important than kowtowing to the powerful lobby representing tobacco growers and marketers, although the struggle has taken years. Support was finally enlisted from the broader business community and the state restaurant association for the first time this year, and those changes, along with further information on the hazards of second-hand smoke, probably made the difference in the outcome.
For Knox County schools, the altered BEP will mean additional millions from the state that the county was losing under the old formula. As long as the County Commission doesn't decide to adjust the county schools budget downward to compensate, the funding increase will represent a much-needed injection of new money into the local school system at a time when the county's overall budget is stretched.
The Legislature also passed a cigarette tax increase of 42 cents per pack, the proceeds of which are needed to support education, according to the governor, who sought an increase of 40 cents.
Yes, it's arguably a mixed message. Smoking is bad for your health and ours, don't do it in publicâ"but if you do buy more cigarettes, assuming you can find a place to smoke them, it sure will help us educate our kids. However, the end results of both bills are, we believe, more positive than most of what the General Assembly produces in a given year.
The new smoking ban may also lead to the logical conclusion of a general trend we've been observing downtown and elsewhere for the last 10 years or so: As one restaurant after another has gone smoke-free, each restaurant that didn't ban smokers seems to have gotten commensurately smokier.
The bill passed by the legislature leaves some interesting loopholes, like that matter of bars that don't allow patrons under 21 and that presumably aren't restaurants. That clause, cleverly disguised as compromise, may be touched with Darwinian genius.
In the moist, fecund entrepreneurial soil of Tennessee, a new retail trend, the Cigarette Smoker's Bar, may emerge as a place dominated by cigarette smokersâ"a smokers' paradise, where smoking is practically required. (One fine smoking bar already exists in the Old City, but it specializes in fine cigars, and we do know some cigar connoisseurs who strongly object to cigarette smoke.) If only half of all cigarette smokers who have insisted they do need to smoke regularly were to patronize this brave new sort of establishment, the proprietor could perhaps do very well, and maybe even charge premium prices for drinks. In such a place, smokers may find they prefer inhaling the smoke of their own cigarette, being, as it is, filtered, to actually breathing the air of the bar. In the concentration of a very smoky bar, it may be safer to smoke than not. Nonsmoking spouses and dates may be issued Verdun-style gasmasks, for a fee.
Thus, by its creative exceptions, the legislature may be creating a whole new and doubtlessly lucrative business. Which, in turn, will help state sales taxes.
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