If there’s one constant about the sometimes-unpredictable St. Louis County Council, it’s that a bid to expand the county’s smoking ban will always be tabled.
That’s not hyperbole. Members of the council have held Councilman Mike O’Mara’s proposal at every meeting since February 2013 – a pretty significant length of time to table a bill in any legislative chamber.
While O’Mara’s effort to remove exemptions for casinos and restaurants that primarily serve liquor isn’t likely to pass anytime in the near future, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said last month that he’s willing to take the issue out of its perpetual hibernation. And so are some members of the seven-person county council.
“It is certainly something that I’m interested in looking at,” Stenger said. “And if you recall, back when we first passed that we thought of it then as a bill that was going to require some incremental implementation in the long run. So it was one step in a process, I guess in other words. So yes, I’m very interested in it.”
St. Louis County adopted its smoking ban in 2009 with exemptions, which meant people could smoke in casinos and bars in which 25 percent or less of their sales are food. Stenger initially supported those exemptions as a member of the county council.
He later told reporters in 2011 that he was in favor of removing the exemptions “if the county’s economic outlook improved.” That didn’t really come to pass until O’Mara brought up his ban expansion in February 2013.
But the continuous tabling began after a number of businesses feared removing exemptions would place them at a competitive disadvantage -- especially since St. Charles County doesn’t have a smoking ban. For instance: Craig Robinson, vice president of finance for Hollywood Casino, said in 2013 that banning smoking in casinos would “have a significant, detrimental effect on revenues produced for the state and for Maryland Heights.”
Stenger said that sort of argumentation is “still a concern.”
“Because one of the things we were looking to see was what other jurisdictions that were contiguous to St. Louis County did,” Stenger said. “Because you want to remain regionally competitive. So, that’s always going to be a fluid situation.”
Still, Stenger emphasized that expanding the smoking ban would be a council decision – not one he could make by fiat. And he added that one of the unknown dynamics is the shakeup in the council’s membership.
"Mike’s got that bill that’s been on the agenda. And I don’t want to speak for him about what he wants to do with it," Stenger said. "I would talk with him and I’m more than willing to talk with him. And from time to time, we do talk about it. And we’ve got a lot of changes in the council lately."
The waiting is the hardest part...
So why has the smoking ban proposal been tabled for so long? O'Mara attributes the delay to sporadic vacancies on the county council. He said he didn't want to move forward on a countywide bill without input from the people of all seven districts.
"When you’re doing something countywide, you include all seven districts in that vote," O'Mara said. "That’s fair to say that we have a full membership here in the council, and I think that each member should address their constituents, and bring back their thoughts."
Since 2013, Councilmen Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, and Kevin O’Leary, D-Oakville, have joined the seven-person body. Harder said he would have to study the issue further before deciding whether they support expanding the ban.
Page, a doctor, told St. Louis Public Radio he “would support revisiting” the smoking ban. His predecessor on the council, Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, was one of the biggest opponents of the county smoking ban.
“I believe that it’s time to reconsider our current smoking ban and evaluate whether we can make it better,” Page said.
O'Leary is a former restaurant owner who dealt with the impact of the smoking ban. He just joined the council earlier this year and also wants to study the issue more. But when asked how the smoking ban affected his business, O'Leary replied: "I think business went up after. ... And everyone had their doubts about it, but it helped it."
"I would just like to get a little bit more information from the people who it’s going to affect the most – that’s why they elected me," O'Leary said. "I’d like to hear what they have to say a little bit more, revisit it with the rest of them and make a decision."
O'Mara said he expects that the council will bring the issue back up for debate before the end of the year -- not two and a half years from now. He said that whatever happens, "we have to include the businesses big time on this one."
"You look at the original bill [in 2009], I was opposed because it was unfair. It was kind of rushed through," O'Mara said. "That’s why we have to take this thing slow and make sure everybody’s included – and make sure the businesses are well-represented in it in our final decision. And make sure our constituents are happy with our decision."