If There Hadn’t Been A Deal …

Jessy wrote; “Smoking helps relieve stress and relaxes me, which is very important to my recovery.”

“Smoking helps me not have bad feelings about being locked up. It relaxes me and it is the only free choice I have in this institution,” wrote Tammy.

Steven’s letter stated, “I already lost my rights. If you ban cigarettes, we will be made to feel like outlaws with no rights. Cigarettes help with stress management. Banning cigarettes gives me nothing to look forward to every day.”

Jessy, Tammy and Steven live at the Trempealeau County Health Center, which serves the severely mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Jessy, Tammy and Steven also signed a petition, along with 97 Center residents asking me to stop the smoking ban.

Last week the Legislature voted to pass a smoking ban. A deal was made between groups representing the opposite sides of the issue.

Bold headlines read; Smoking Ban Deal Reached. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel printed; All agreed to the changes in the proposal, which is now on the fast track.

Prior to the vote, the Trempealeau County Health Center Director traveled to Madison to advocate for his residents. He asked me to do what I could to allow residents to continue to smoke in a protected place. I learned that smoking actually helps mentally ill patients – calming those with anxiety.

When the smoking ban bill came before the Senate, I asked my colleagues to support my amendment written on behalf of the Trempealeau County Health Center residents. The amendment would have exempted from the smoking ban homes for the mentally ill, developmentally disabled and nursing homes.

Later a similar amendment was offered to include exemptions for the King Veterans Home. This state-run facility is home to almost 700 veterans and their families. Many have mental illness. Over one third suffer from anxiety-related disorders including PTSD. Legislators argued those who fought to protect our freedom should have their freedom to smoke protected by the rest of us. I agreed, but the majority did not.

All 17 amendments offered in the Senate and 30 amendments offered in the Assembly failed, including exemptions for veterans and Jessy, Tammy, Steven and their fellow residents. The bill was fast-tracked and no one was going to change the deal.

One of my colleagues told me, “You know if there hadn’t been a deal, I would have voted for a few of those amendments. Some were good ideas.”

I don’t smoke. I have asthma. Smokey bars are not good for asthma. I strongly support smoking cessation efforts and I work hard to move health care reform forward because I know when doctors tell patients to quit smoking, they are roughly three times more likely to stop.

But I represent scores of people who want to be able to choose whether or not to frequent a tavern where smoking is allowed. Regardless of my personal habits, I represent my constituents - many of whom are opposed to the ban. In the end, I joined my Republican colleagues as the only Senate Democrat to vote against the ban.

And again I learned when powerful groups put controversy aside and reach agreement; folks not part of the power brokers’ negotiation get left out ~ because those forging the agreement promise, “this is it – we all agree to oppose any changes or amendments.”

The problem is the big boys don’t think of everything or everyone. Ordinary people not represented by powerful groups are forgotten. Like the residents of the Trempealeau County Health Center and the Veterans Home at King.

Sunday at church people asked why I voted the way I did. “I know,” one lady said. “You were sticking up for the little guys.”

Yep. That’s my job.