The Maryland Senate Finance Committee today killed a bill that would have restricted smoking in public areas after last-minute intervention by Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, a close friend of the chief tobacco lobbyist against the bill.
Steinberg's unusual move to meet with the committee before the vote appeared to have helped turn what would have been a 5-to-3 vote passing the bill into a 4-to-4 stalemate that killed it.
After the vote, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), said, "I don't know what happened. At 12 p.m. . . . I had five votes."
Several senators on the committee said they were surprised at Steinberg's intervention. They and some members of other committees said they could remember no other instance in which a Senate president had had similar involvement at the committee voting stage, except on such major issues as the budget, pension reform and taxes.
Steinberg, who became Senate president last December with the lobbying help long-time Senate aide Bruce C. Bereano, who now is the tobacco industry's lobbyist, told the committee at its pre-vote meeting that he personally opposed the bill. He said, however, that he made it clear to the committee members that he had asked to meet with them because the bill, which has regularly sparked long debates in the legislature, was being amended at the last minute to win passage in ways that were not acceptable.
"It would hit the floor of the Senate as a joke," Steinberg said after the meeting. "It was supposed to be a statewide bill, yet 20 counties actually 18 had asked to be exempted out. What concerned me was the credibility of the committee."
Steinberg said he told the committee members he was not asking them it to vote against the measure. "I told them if you're for the bill vote for it but don't come out with a bill that would be a joke on the Senate floor" because it would apply only to a few jurisdictions.
He said he intends to get involved with many pieces of legislation in committee, and this bill, admittedly minor, was the first. "If I don't interject myself, I'm not being a good leader," he said, adding: "I don't stay away from a bill because of a person or get involved in a bill because of a person. It's the issue that determines my involvement."
Bereano, a lawyer and one of the most effective and oft-hired lobbyists in Annapolis, is on $30,000 retainer with the Tobacco Institute to kill the smoking bill and other measures opposed by the cigarette industry, such as Gov. Harry Hughes' proposed 3-cent increase in the state's cigarette tax.
The Lung Association and American Cancer Society had been lobbying strongly for the smoking restriction bill, which would have required businesses with ten or more employes or restaurants seating more than 50 people to set aside smoking and no-smoking areas.
For the last few weeks, according to Bereano, he had been meeting with Senate delegations from various counties and encouraging them them to ask that Bainum's bill be amended to exempt their areas.
Bereano said he told the senators, including Steinberg, that the smoking ban was a "home rule" issue that should be dealt with by local, not state, government. Bereano's strategy apparently worked. By today's vote, 18 of the state's 23 counties had asked to be exempted from the smoking bill.
Some of the largest counties--Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard--and Baltimore City had not asked to be exempted.
Bereano said he had talked to Steinberg several times about his lobbying efforts but had not asked the Senate president to intervene.
Going in to today's meeting, Bainum had the support of five senators--the four who ultimately voted for the bill and Sen. Thomas Bromwell, a Democrat from Steinberg's home county of Baltimore.
Bromwell said he had promised Bainum, a friend, that he would support the bill in the Finance Committee, despite considerable lobbying against it by business interest in Bromwell's area. He said he intended to vote to exempt his own county once the bill came up for consideration on the floor.
At the pre-vote meeting, Steinberg made a strong pitch against that sort of voting behavior, saying that in the future Senate committees should begin using rules now followed in the House. When a House committee supports a bill its members are expected to vote in favor of it and against amendments on the floor.
When the bill came up for a final vote, after all amendments to exempt counties had been turned down, Bromwell said: "I read this vote now as 4-to-4, with me the swing vote. I think the bill's a dead duck on the floor. If I vote for this in committee I'm going to be voting with everyone of these counties to amend out."
Vice chairman Dennis Rasmussen (D-Baltimore), one of Steinberg's chief floor lieutenants, quickly accused Bromwell of being irresponsible in not following the new effort at committee discipline. At that point, Bromwell cast his vote against the smoking bill.