Politics & Government

Lighting up at the Texas Capitol?

The Texas Capitol
The Texas Capitol Associated Press

The days of smoke-filled chambers in the Texas Capitol — when members freely smoked cigars and cigarettes as they went about the business of the state — are long gone.

Also in the past are the days of Texans visiting the historic sunset-red granite building and lighting up in common areas of the Capitol, from the hallways to the rotunda.

But while lawmakers are poised to consider new smoking regulations for their fellow Texans — from cracking down on smoking in some workplaces to making it a crime to smoke in a car when a young child is present — they have kept exceptions for themselves, and smoking is still allowed in the Capitol in the offices of House members.

“It’s up to members whether they smoke in there,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who heads the House Administration Committee. “And members decide who can smoke or not smoke in their office.”

A proposal was snuffed out this month to change long-standing House rules that make these offices the only place inside the Capitol where smoking is allowed.

Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, proposed preventing smoking in space controlled by the House. Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, in turn proposed preventing “snuff, alcohol or loud music not approved” from those spaces as well.

Both members dropped their proposals, leaving rules in place that let members smoke, drink alcohol and play loud music in their offices — and use smokeless tobacco on the House floor.

One Republican said this rule gives lawmakers the ability to do things other Texans can’t.

“We debated prohibiting bills which gave the #txlege special treatment that others don’t get,” GOP political consultant Derek Ryan tweeted at the time. “How many state employees can’t smoke inside?”

The old days

It was once common to see Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and other leaders light up cigarettes or cigars on the Senate or House floor.

At one time, nearly every desk came equipped with an ashtray as lawmakers smoked while debating bills.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, remembers when he was in the House less than a decade ago and smoking was still allowed in the members lounge.

Lawmakers changed the rules to prevent smoking there but still allowed smoking in individual offices.

These days, smoking is still banned in those lounges and in every common area in the Capitol, as recommended by the State Preservation Board, which oversees and preserves the historic building.

Areas that don’t fall under the board’s oversight, Geren said, are the individual House and Senate offices.

Hancock said the Senate went along with the no-smoking rules.

“No Senate offices allow smoking,” he said. “We have chosen to abide by preservation board guidelines.”

A nonissue for some

Some local House members, such as Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, were surprised to learn that some lawmakers can smoke in their offices.

But it’s a nonissue to him.

“I don’t smoke and would not let anyone else smoke in my office,” he said.

Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, also said she wouldn’t allow smoking in her office.

“I won’t even wear bluejeans into the Capitol,” she said. “I have that much reverence for that building. I would never have thought about smoking in an office or letting visitors do so.”

Many say few House members still smoke, so it’s not the problem it once was.

“It has changed so much,” said Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth. “There used to be a group of guys with cigars hanging out of their mouths in the chamber.

“Now people go outside to smoke.”

But to each his own, said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, an ardent supporter of civil liberties.

“I’m a liberty guy, so you do whatever you want,” he said.

Since it’s an individual choice, Stickland said, he wouldn’t like it if someone came into his office and fired up a cigar or cigarette.

“I would be furious if someone did it in our office,” he said.

On the table

On tap for state lawmakers to consider are several ways to limit smoking — and the use of vapor products — in areas outside the Capitol complex.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed Senate Bill 87 to create a statewide smoking ban, geared toward preventing smoking in workplaces and public places, except for a few areas, such as tobacco shops and bars.

His proposal, which would also prevent smoking in seating areas at outdoor venues such as stadiums and amphitheaters and at outdoor sporting events, comes as a number of cities continue to consider smoking bans.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, has filed House Bill 461 to make it a crime to smoke in a passenger vehicle carrying a child in a safety seat. Other states have banned smoking in cars when children up to age 18 are present. Canales’ proposal would make it a Class C misdemeanor.

And Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, has filed HB81 to add all nicotine products, including electronic cigarettes, to the list of items that can’t be sold to people younger than 18.

Several measures would also regulate vapor products: HB170, HB646 and SB97. Two measures, HB456 and SB96, would prevent the use and possession of vapor products on school property.

Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully in the past to prevent smoking on Capitol grounds and might raise the issue again this year.

“It’s just a nuisance that we shouldn’t have to deal with,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has said. “We want our guests and workers to be as healthy as possible.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram