- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

RICHMOND — Lawmakers who want to ban smoking in most public places hope the results of a new public opinion poll will improve their chances of success in this election-year General Assembly session.

Seventy-one percent of Virginia voters responding to a Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey said they favor a ban, and half said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who voted for such a law. Twenty-three percent said they would be less likely, and 27 percent were unsure.

All 140 legislative seats are up for election in November.

Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, Roanoke Republican, said yesterday that the results should convince previously reluctant legislators that supporting a smoking ban is no longer a political liability in a state with deep, historic ties to tobacco.

The survey of 625 registered voters, paid for by a coalition of health organizations, was conducted Nov. 13 and 14 and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Last year, the Senate voted 21-18 to pass Mr. Bell’s proposed smoking ban — a major development in the nation’s No. 4 tobacco-producing state and the city that cigarette giant Philip Morris USA calls home. A six-member House committee unanimously killed the bill.

Mr. Bell has reintroduced the measure, which would prohibit smoking in virtually all buildings or enclosed areas frequented by the public. Several House members have submitted similar legislation.

Delegate John A. Cosgrove, Chesapeake Republican, is sponsoring a bill to bar smoking in restaurants built after July 1, 2008, unless they have a structurally separate area with its own ventilation system for smokers. His bill does not affect other public buildings or existing restaurants.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, has signaled support for a restaurant smoking ban but reluctance to extend the prohibition to all private workplaces.

m Drawing lines

A bipartisan commission would draw congressional and legislative district boundaries based on population, not politics, under a constitutional amendment that cleared its first hurdle yesterday.

Though the measure passed the first obstacle, there’s a long way to go before the partisan way district lines are drawn could change. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, Bath Democrat, has introduced the same proposal since 2002 without success, and yesterday, it advanced with the support of just one Republican.

The amendment would change the Virginia Constitution to put redistricting in the hands of a 13-member commission made up of two appointments each by Senate and House leaders, the minority leaders of each house and the state Democratic and Republican party chairmen. The 12 partisan members then select the 13th member, and if they can’t agree, the Supreme Court makes the choice.

The “radical” part of the bill, Mr. Deeds said, is that the only demographic consideration that can be made in drawing district lines is population.

The majority party — currently Republican — controls how the districts are redrawn every 10 years with the goal of strengthening its grip on power. The Supreme Court has said districts may be redrawn with protecting incumbents in mind. The next redistricting will be in 2011.

m Payday lending

Several lawmakers are calling for a repeal of the law that allows payday lenders to charge annual interest rates pushing 390 percent.

The payday lenders would face the same 36 percent cap as other lenders.

Delegate Harvey B. Morgan, Gloucester Republican, said he championed the legislation in 2002 because the federal government had failed then to stop out-of-state banks from setting up shop in Virginia and charging exorbitant amounts for short-term loans.

At least with the law, the state could regulate the industry.

Today, the typical Virginia borrower takes out an average of seven payday loans per year from a single lender, often using one loan to pay off another, according to a study released yesterday by the Virginia Partnership to Encourage Responsible Lending.

Five bills before the General Assembly aim to repeal the Payday Loan Act, and an additional six would reform it.

Representatives of the payday loan industry said repealing the law would drive them out of business and force their customers to bounce checks, pay high credit-card late fees or turn to illegal Internet loan companies.

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