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Hoping to take advantage of a changed Utah Legislature where one of every four lawmakers will be new and many past leaders of the far-right will be gone Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, will try anew to pass an often-defeated bill to ban smoking in cars while children are present.
How it fares could be an early test of just how conservative or perhaps moderate the new Legislature will be, as the conservative Eagle Forum is again vowing to fight it as an infringement on parental rights.
"Many of the people who fought this in the past are gone," mostly conservatives and tea party supporters, Arent says. In the upcoming Legislature, 21 of the 75 House members will be new, as will three of the 29 senators. Several of Utah's most conservative lawmakers lost re-election bids or stepped down to run unsuccessfully for higher office.
Gayle Ruzicka, head of the Utah Eagle Forum, agrees that the Legislature had so many changes "that it is hard to know what will happen. On the other hand, you have a lot of new people and maybe they will believe in the rights of people to do that which is legal on their own personal property."
Arent notes that versions of the smoking-in-cars-with-kids prohibition bill pushed by her or former Democratic legislators in various years passed either the House or Senate but not both in the same session. She said opponents often sent it to transportation committees, where opponents had enough votes to bury it, rather than to health committees where she says it belonged.
HB13 is a watered-down compromise bill, which she hopes will make it less controversial and improve its chances.
For example, it would make smoking in a car where a child is present a secondary offense, meaning police could not pull over drivers just for that. A driver could be ticketed only after being cited for a primary offense. Also, for the first year after enactment, police would be allowed only to issue warnings, not tickets, to violators. And the $45 penalty would be waived if the violator attended a smoking-cessation class.
Even with all its compromises, the bill is important, Arent says, "because having it illegal makes all the difference in the world to people's action."
Arent says she has lined up medical experts who can testify that smoking in cars with children "is the most dangerous place to smoke with the most dangerous person to have the smoke around."
But Ruzicka said the Eagle Forum worries about moving in a dangerous direction.
"I don't think we should have 'smoking police' to watch for smoke and children in cars, and smoke and children in homes. It just never ends."
Ruzicka agrees, "It would be very nice if parents would make the choice not to smoke around their children. … But smoking is legal. And as long as it's legal, we should not tell people whether or not they can smoke on their … property."
Arent says her bill deals only with vehicles. For the first time, she also won approval for the bill in an interim health committee, which she said may help convince new lawmakers of its importance: "Whenever it goes to a health committee and they understand the health issues, it passes."