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Wednesday, March 4,2009

Ingham Republicans: Big tent

by David Harns

The Ingham County Republicans have a black woman and a youngish white man as co-chairs of its executive committee. Those that attend our meetings are young, old, white, black, rich, poor, owners of small businesses, government employees and everyone in between. We advocate efficient government, individual freedom and equal opportunity. Do we agree all the time? No, we don't. But do we respect each other enough to work together for the common good of mid-Michigan? Yes, we do.


At our January meeting, the Ingham County Republican Party Executive Committee considered a resolution in opposition to the Ingham County Commission's recent ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. The resolution started on the basis that Republicans believe that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should not be infringed by government at any level. That part pretty much had consensus support. The next sentence started up the debate. Do we believe that the government must respect the legal and constitutional rights of private property owners?


Several committee members, as well as a representative of the Ingham County Health Department, spoke in favor of the ban, citing the health problems associated with second-hand smoke. They said the goal of the ban is to improve air quality in non-smoking areas in order to minimize exposure of second-hand tobacco smoke. Others spoke about how private property owners and proprietors of bars and restaurants have a right to make economic decisions that affect the viability of their businesses. The question was discussed: Are bars and restaurants public places? Or are they private businesses? Do citizens have a right to be free from smoke in these places? Or is it a choice that consumers have whether to patronize bars and restaurants that allow smoking?


The state Supreme Court has decided that state law preempts local governments with respect to the regulation of smoking. However, Ingham County's ban is focused on the idea that if there is a non-smoking section in a restaurant, it should be free of smoke. Those in opposition to the ban pointed out that state law prohibits the act of smoking in a non-smoking section; it does not prohibit the presence of smoke in a non-smoking section. In their opinion, part of the failure of the Ingham ban is that it does not appreciate the legal distinction between the act of smoking and the byproduct of tobacco smoke. (Including smoke produced from cooking a meal.)


During the discussion, many committee members agreed that the real answer to improve the air quality in food establishments is to have a state ban. This would create equal rules and regulations for businesses to follow throughout Michigan. Part of the argument against the ban was that it puts Ingham County restaurants and bars on an un-level playing field. It would require that any new or expanded businesses have ample air filtration, smoke eaters, airflow or other safeguards to keep smoke from entering the non-smoking section. However, it wouldn't be until 2019 that all restaurants and bars in Ingham County would have to comply. This was seen by some as creating a significant economic disincentive to the creation of new jobs in our county. New businesses or commercial building construction would incur an extra expense that current facilities wouldn't have. Restaurants just across the border in Eaton or Clinton or Jackson counties wouldn't have to follow this law, but new businesses in this county would. It would discourage the purchase and renovation of existing buildings for the purpose of bars and restaurants that desire to allow smoking, while allowing existing smoking facilities to continue in operation as they are.


In the end, by a 13-8 vote, the Ingham County Republican Party Executive Committee voted to oppose the smoking ban on the grounds that it violates private property rights, infringes upon the free market and is possibly based on flawed legal grounds. The fact that it will discourage the creation of jobs in Ingham County at a time when the county should be encouraging new business entrepreneurs to locate in our community was one of the major reasons why, in the end, the ban was opposed. The great thing about the local GOP, however, is that, when the vote was said and done, we all continued working together toward our common purposes.

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