RALEIGH This semester, Wake Tech sophomore Micheal Proulx says he had a 15-minute walk from English to a finance class “that would’ve been perfect for a cigarette.”
Instead, Proulx usually waits until after his last class to smoke a Camel Crush in his Hyundai because Wake Tech is a tobacco-free campus.
But Senate Republicans took a step Tuesday toward striking down local rules governing where smokers like Proulx can light up.
Senate Bill 703, which passed the Senate Agriculture, Environment, Natural Resources Committee, prohibits local governments and community colleges from regulating outdoor smoking in a manner that’s more restrictive than state law. It is just the latest way state lawmakers are taking action to overturn or limit local policies they oppose.
Because state law doesn’t impose restrictions on smoking outdoors, the measure would nullify other anti-smoking laws for publicly owned open spaces such as parks, beaches and community college campuses.
“Around the state, a number of localities and other institutions are trying to take this legal product and say you can’t consume it outdoors,” said Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican, the bill sponsor. “I just personally find that objectionable.”
Newton said the legislation is designed to void smoking restrictions on Wrightsville Beach, which voters approved in November.
“That’s what makes it so frustrating,” Wrightsville Beach Mayor David Cignotti said. “The same folks who don’t like the federal government telling us what to do are turning around and telling local governments what to do.”
State, localities at odds
The clash between state lawmakers and local governments had become readily apparent earlier this session.
Republican legislative leaders pushed to approve measures to void the city of Raleigh’s lease on the Dix property, transfer control of the Charlotte airport to a regional authority, redraw Wake County school board districts, give the state all environmental regulatory power and limit local governments’ ability to impose design standards on homes.
House lawmakers continued the effort this week, giving final approval Tuesday to a measure that limits the ability of cities and counties to ensure the safety of low-income housing and crack down on neighborhoods with high crime rates.
A day earlier, the House passed legislation 73-41 to prevent local governments from automatically deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks, a move that would affect firefighters and police officers.
Another provision in the bill restricts a locality from requiring a business to assume any liability for its carbon footprint. If approved, it would end Durham County’s commuter ordinance that requires businesses to implement plans to manage its employees’ transportation needs.
Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, sponsored the second measure, too. He said a city councilman he wouldn’t identify asked him to push the legislation. “Rather than waiting for the courts to stop them, we are just going to go ahead and deal with it,” he said.
Durham Rep. Paul Luebke, a Democrat, objected to both measures. “It’s extraordinary to see how many bills are having a negative impact on North Carolina’s larger cities,” he said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by the local governments.
“There is no apparent limit to the micromanaging that this legislature will consider,” said Russell Killen, mayor of Knightdale, which recently voted to ban smoking at a 70-acre park it plans to open this summer.
“I simply cannot understand why this legislature appears to want to remove all local control and have legislators from Manteo to Murphy making all of the decisions on how ... self-reliant small towns shape their communities.”
Municipal leaders for months have argued – to little avail – that local governments represent the will of their communities better than larger government bodies.
Wrightsville Beach leaders point to a recently passed anti-smoking referendum as a perfect example.
‘Direct will of the people’
In November, Wrightsville Beach residents voted by nearly a 2-1 margin in favor of a measure to ban smoking on the town-owned shorefront.
“This wasn’t the decision of a board majority,” said Tim Owens, town manager for Wrightsville Beach. “This was the direct will of the people.”
The smoking legislation would affect 15 county governments, 41 municipal governments and 35 of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges that prohibit smoking on all outdoor public grounds, according to the state Division of Public Health.
Opponents on the committee said the bill would encourage littering and pose a health risk to children.
“Has the sponsor had any thought about the impact in public spaces?” Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, asked Newton. “Secondhand smoke … stunts (children’s) educational processes.”
Newton responded: “People can move their children to another spot if this is really a problem. If you’re at a free public event, where you’re free to move around, you ought be able to consume a tobacco product.”
Hickory Sen. Austin Allran, a Republican who said he opposes the bill in its current form, asked about the impetus for the legislation. Newton said, “Smokers are unhappy with it.”
Campaign-finance records show the bill sponsors, Newton and Sens. Brent Jackson and Andrew Brock, each received at least $500 from tobacco lobbyists in 2012. Jackson, an Autryville Republican, received a total of $2,500 from R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard Tobacco, as well as $2,000 from individuals associated with tobacco.
Newton received $1,000 from R.J. Reynolds and $1,000 from the president of a tobacco processing company. Brock, a Mocksville Republican, received $500 from Lorillard Tobacco.
The bill needs to win approval in another committee and the full Senate this week to survive this session.
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