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Senate assures ban on smoking

Legislators last night outlawed tobacco use in the Commonwealth's restaurants, taverns, and nightclubs, and voted to lift the state's ban on Sunday liquor-store sales as the House and Senate concluded the year's business with a last-minute flurry.//

Working until nearly midnight, lawmakers also approved a sales tax "holiday" designed to spur shoppers to spend more, thereby pumping up the state's flagging economy, and approved $102 million in extra spending for the current fiscal year, much of it for social programs hit hard by budget cuts last spring. The supplemental budget includes $3.7 million for the Department of Social Services, $3.2 million for the Department of Mental Retardation, and $3.1 million for the Department of Youth Services.

The lifting of the Sunday liquor sales ban and the sales tax holiday were part of a compromise "stimulus" package containing more than $100 million in spending and tax credits designed to stoke the state's economy. On the sales tax holiday, scheduled for Aug. 14, the state's 5 percent sales tax would be suspended on computers, furniture, appliances, and other goods, but not on more expensive items, such as cars and boats.

The stimulus bill's ultimate prospects are uncertain. Governor Mitt Romney has proposed a stimulus plan that is about half as large, and the governor has not taken a firm position on either Sunday alcohol sales or the sales tax holiday. Because it is a spending measure, Romney may veto certain parts of the bill and not others in the coming days.

Romney also proposed a supplemental budget that is about half as large as the one approved by the Legislature. In ironing out the differences between the versions approved by the House and Senate, lawmakers removed a $1.5 million enticement targeted at Virgin Atlantic Airways, which is contemplating a move to Boston, and $20,000 for a Worcester memorial to Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry.

N early a month ago, the House provided a veto-proof blessing to the statewide smoking ban, and the Senate followed suit last night after three days of debate, voting 29 to 10. Minor differences between the two bills will have to be worked out, but last night's action ensures that the ban will become the law of the Commonwealth starting July 5, 2004, with violators facing fines as high as $300. "It's one of the most concrete victories for workers' health and public health that we've seen in Massachusetts in a long time," said Diane Pickles, executive director of Tobacco Free Massachusetts, an advocacy group.

The vote is a major victory for public health advocates who have devoted more than a decade to jousting with the tobacco industry over a prohibition that has swept cities and states across the country. Nearly 100 Massachusetts cities, including Boston, have adopted bans, and the state is poised to become the sixth with a blanket ban on smoking in virtually all public places.

Under both the House and Senate versions of the ban, smoking would still be allowed in nursing homes, though it would be confined to specially designated areas. Cigarettes also could be smoked in private clubs, fraternal organizations, and cigar bars that can prove more than half of their revenues come from tobacco sales. Republican opponents of the measure said the exemptions highlighted the policy's flaws.

"If you're an employee of a nursing home, you can still be exposed to smoke every day," said Senator Richard R. Tisei, Republican of Wakefield. "Maybe we didn't include people who work in nursing homes because they're poor -- many of them are immigrants; they're on the lower rung."

The measure lifting the Commonwealth's Sunday liquor sales ban, a law rooted in the state's Puritan past, lets individual communities decide whether they want to allow Sunday sales. The Legislature voided many of the other so-called blue laws nearly three de cades ago, and those in favor of scrapping the Sunday liquor law argued it was unfair to restrict liquor stores when other retailers were allowed to operate on Sundays. They predict that ending the prohibition will increase the state's annual sales tax revenue by about $1.8 million.

But many Massachusetts mom-and-pop liquor store owners opposed the change, saying it will create pressure for them to work on what is now their only day off, according to the 700-member strong Massachusetts Package Stores Association. Some religious leaders also are loath to give up one of the last laws that distinguishes Sunday from other days.

In 1990, the Massachusetts Legislature relaxed alcohol rules to allow Sunday sales between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day and in cities and towns within 10 miles of New Hampshire and Vermont, which permit Sunday sales. Border legislators determined to preserve that competitive advantage helped doom a House attempt to lift the ban last month. But the measure was presented as a separate bill, and the idea's inclusion in a broader measure helped push it through last night.

"Modernizing the marketplace by allowing Sunday sales will bring consumers more convenience and the state more tax revenue," said David Wojnar of the Washington-based Distilled Spirits Council, which lobbied heavily for the measure.

In other action, legislative leaders delayed action on a property tax bill pushed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston and other local officials. Menino and his aides had lobbied furiously for the bill, arguing that without it, the average Boston homeowner would see an $800 property tax increase next year. As many as 50 other communities around the state also would benefit from the measure, which would allow cities to raise commercial tax rates beyond the current limits to deal with a rare divergence between residential property values, which are going up, and stagnant commercial values.

Romney and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini endorsed the bill, but House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran remained cool to it as the session wound down.

The Legislature did agree, however, to establish a five-member commission charged with drafting a bill by Jan. 12 that will allow communities to raise commercial tax rates beyond the current limits, at least temporarily. It also will allow cities to spread out over a longer period of time the tax hikes homeowners are sure to face next year, whether legislators eventually approve Menino's measure or not.

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