AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told his colleagues on Thursday that he remembers when every desk in both Capitol chambers had an ashtray. Some 40 years later, the dean of the Senate pushed through an amendment that would abolish smoking on the Capitol grounds altogether.
"This is speaking to secondary smoke for our school children, our workers," Whitmire said. "That's what progress and education and smart rules are about."
Whitmire added the amendment on Thursday to Senate Bill 201. Authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the bill addresses the functions of the State Preservation Board, the agency tasked with preserving and maintaining the Capitol.
Whitmire's proposal, which must still make it through the House, would prohibit smoking inside the Capitol gates. Offenders would face a Class C Misdemeanor and be subject to a $500 fine.
Birdwell was hesitant to accept Whitmire's amendment. He said enforcing a smoking ban on Capitol grounds would consume Department of Public Safety officers' time and leave them less focused on security.
But more than one senator shared stories of having to walk through a hazy cloud of cigarette smoke on their walk into the building.
"It's just a nuisance that we shouldn't have to deal with because they actually take over the staircase and the open air space in the annex," Whitmire said.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, acknowledged the problem, but expressed concern about criminalizing the habit. Currently, it's a Class C Misdemeanor to smoke on school grounds. Whitmire's amendment mirrors that offense.
He said he is confident that DPS would use good judgment, likely opting to issue warnings to first-time offenders.
In a floor debate that lasted no more than 20 minutes, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, complimented her Democratic colleague and his "conservative approach" to addressing a smoking ban with local control.
“I believe that this is the ultimate local control in that those of us who work here in this building and on these grounds and who represent the folks are the ones making the decision," Huffman said.
If the measure is approved and the governor signs off on it, Whitmire said he doesn't think it will take long for people to adjust to the ban. "People would just know the grounds are not for smoking," he said. "They're sacred areas. We want our guests and our workers to be as healthy as possible."