- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

RICHMOND — A Republican lawmaker proposed legislation yesterday that would require restaurants that allow smoking to post a sign at the entrance notifying customers.

The bill by House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, would eliminate the legal requirement that restaurants provide no-smoking sections, though they still could do so voluntarily. Mr. Griffith said smoke usually drifts into those sections anyway.

The House General Laws Committee endorsed the bill on a voice vote. The bill is now heads for a floor vote.

Mr. Griffith offered the bill as an alternative to legislation that would ban smoking outright in restaurants and most other indoor places. A subcommittee rejected the ban last week.

Attempts to restrict public smoking have not done well in Virginia, a state with deep historical ties to tobacco. Virginia ranks fourth nationally in tobacco production, and Richmond is home to leading cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris USA.

Mr. Griffith said his bill would encourage restaurants to go smoke-free without trampling on their property rights.

“My constituents would like to have more places to eat that are no-smoking,” he said. Requiring restaurants to put up ‘Smoking Permitted’ signs will prompt most to go smoke-free within two years, Mr. Griffith predicted.

The restaurant industry and public-health advocates opposed the bill for different reasons.

“We think the marketplace is already responding,” said Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association lobbyist Tom Lisk. He said an increasing number of restaurants are voluntarily prohibiting smoking.

Mr. Lisk also said: “If this is good public policy, it should extend to all public places, not just restaurants.”

Terry Hargrove of the anti-smoking group Virginians for a Healthy Future, which favors a public smoking ban, said Mr. Griffith’s bill fails to protect restaurant workers from the health hazards of secondhand smoke.

Delegate Terrie L. Suit, Virginia Beach Republican, said job-seekers who see the “Smoking Permitted” sign on the restaurant door can simply apply elsewhere. Mr. Hargrove said many applicants just need money and cannot afford to be choosy about where they work.

• Helmet law

Motorcyclists won’t be able to ride legally on Virginia’s scenic highways without a helmet, but if they do so illegally, they still have hope of paying a lower fine as a result of legislative action yesterday.

The House of Delegates voted 59-39 to kill legislation sponsored by Delegate Bill Janis, Henrico County Republican, that would allow motorcyclists to ride helmet-free on roads designated by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., Henrico County Republican, a longtime motorcyclist and helmet advocate, said the scenic highways are also some of Virginia’s most dangerous.

On a voice vote, the House gave preliminary approval to legislation sponsored by Delegate Watkins M. Abbitt Jr., Appomattox independent, to drastically reduce the punishment for riding without a helmet.

Under current law, a violation is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $250. Violators also can be assessed demerits on their driving record. Mr. Abbitt’s bill would change it to a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine and no demerits.

But Delegate Charles “Bill” W. Carrico Sr., Independence Republican and a former state trooper, worried that the lighter punishment would tempt motorcyclists to ride without a helmet.

• Payday loans

Measures to reform the payday-lending industry passed out of a House committee yesterday.

The industry-backed bill is similar to one passed by the Senate last week.

A statewide database would track payday loans, and borrowers would be limited to three payday loans at a time. They also couldn’t take out a loan on the same day they paid one off.

Efforts to repeal the 2002 law that opened the door to the payday-lending industry failed in both houses.

• Gambling on roads

A proposal to extract money for transportation projects from gamblers at Virginia’s off-track betting parlors was rejected yesterday by a legislative committee.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, sponsored legislation to allow pari-mutuel wagering on recorded races shown on terminals at Colonial Downs and its OTB parlors throughout the state. After paying prizes, 49 percent of the proceeds would go to transportation and 49 percent to owners of the New Kent County racetrack; 2 percent would go to horsemen.

A study commissioned by Colonial Downs estimated that the measure would raise about $660 million a year.

Delegate John S. Reid, Henrico Republican, said the bill provides a way to improve the state’s transportation system by tapping into money that Virginians spend voluntarily.

Gambling opponents argued, however, that the state should not increase its involvement in games of chance.

A companion bill is pending in a Senate committee.

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