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Senate president open to statewide curb on smoking

FRANKFORT — Senate President David Williams said Monday night that he could support a statewide smoking ban in public places to help improve health in Kentucky.

But he said he would not support any increase in the state cigarette tax until there has been a thorough review of cost-cutting measures in the state budget.

Williams' comments came during and after an appearance on KET with Gov. Steve Beshear and House Speaker Greg Stumbo to discuss the projected $456 million shortfall in the state budget this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The three were on Kentucky Tonight, a public-affairs show on the Kentucky Educational Television network hosted by Bill Goodman. It aired live from the Capitol.

Williams said a statewide smoking ban could be modeled on bans in Lexington or Louisville.

"I'm not entering into this exercise looking for taxes to increase," he said, adding that he wants to see how serious groups advocating smoking cessation are.

Williams, R-Burkesville, noted that he saw his late father, who smoked for 30 years, "go through some things that I don't want to see replicated."

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he could support a statewide smoking ban and recommend it to House members. He said he is allergic to smoke and that he imposed a ban Monday on smoking in the legislative office that he took over last year.

Stumbo also said he didn't know until last night that Williams was serious about such a ban. Williams had mentioned the proposal last year, but it didn't go anywhere.

Beshear said of Williams' idea, "In theory, it's the way we ought to go. We need to look at whether there is enough support to do that."

The Democratic governor said he understands that such bans have not hurt businesses in cities that have them.

Beshear has proposed raising the state's 30-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to $1 as part of his plan to address the budget shortfall. Other parts of his plan include giving most state workers three days of unpaid leave this year and the state furlough authority next year, taking about $17 million from uncommitted, excess money from coal severance tax proceeds and cutting most state agencies by 4 percent.

Stumbo said a cigarette tax increase of 70 cents could be difficult for legislators to support, especially those in House districts near neighboring states with lower cigarette taxes.

Beshear said he is glad the legislature, through public hearings that start Tuesday, is studying what cuts can be made in state government, as he has.

Williams questioned whether the pessimistic revenue shortfall projection is reliable.

He noted that recent revenue receipts for the state were up and that an expected federal economic stimulus package could go a long way in helping with the state budget.

The legislature is to hold budget committee hearings this month to come up with a possible solution. All lawmakers will return to Frankfort Feb. 3 to consider the problem.

The budget committees for the House and Senate will host a joint meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday, and the chambers will hold separate budget hearings on Wednesday.

"We only have three weeks to cover a lot of ground, so I am glad that we can start down this path together," House budget chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford, said in a statement. "My goal is to have the House ready to go with a plan once the legislature reconvenes the session on Feb. 3."

Beshear is tentatively scheduled to deliver a State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the legislature on Feb. 4.

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