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Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Posted 9:09 PM by

Election may decide Pa.'s right to be stupid

Clear lines can be drawn between Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopefuls Ed Rendell and Lynn Swann when it comes to motorcycle helmets, a statewide indoor smoking ban and using money from slot machines to finance education.Despite mounting evidence that more helmetless motorcycle riders are now dying, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell stands by his 2003 repeal of the law requiring them to wear protective headgear in traffic.

"I know you'll be surprised hearing this from a Democrat, but I generally believe that government shouldn't get involved in things of personal choice," Rendell told Pittsburgh TV reporters last week after the crash involving Steelers' Super Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

His Republican opponent in the November election doesn't think so.

Former Steelers star Lynn Swann would sign a bill to restore the helmet law if he is elected and the Legislature passes it, but is not advocating such a move, said Swann spokeswoman Melissa Walters.

Clear lines can also be drawn between the gubernatorial hopefuls when it comes to the idea of a statewide indoor smoking ban and using money from slot machines to finance education.

In a state that never seems to put such controversial questions on a ballot referendum for the public to decide, the governor is often the final say on such matters.

"The question is where you draw the line in a free society," Rendell said. Where do you draw the line, how much do you regulate? And that was my decision. ... Ben Roethlisberger is a very smart, intelligent guy. And he made a choice for himself."

Apparently Big Ben was not bright enough to actually have a license to drive a motorcycle at the time of the crash and will be cited for it, the Associated Press reported Monday.

State motorcycle deaths increased by 31 percent from 2003 to 2005, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Over that time, deaths of helmet-wearing riders declined, but helmetless fatalities went from 27 in 2003 to 87 last year.

Those figures and others will be part of a report required by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee as part of the repeal, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The report is scheduled for release June 28.

Meanwhile, a similar study in Florida found traffic deaths soared in the nearly six years since Gov. Jeb Bush repealed that state's mandatory helmet law.

A Florida Today analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics found "unhelmeted" deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year of available data.

Another clear killer in Pennsylvania is cigarette smoke.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, has repeatedly proposed a statewide indoor ban, S.B. 602, similar to the one in place in New Jersey. It would forbid smoking in a variety of businesses, including bars, restaurants, malls, grocery stores, sports arenas, convention halls and casinos. It also would extend to workplaces, requiring employees to leave the premises before lighting up.

Rendell seems to have flip-flopped in the last two weeks on the issue.

While being peppered with questions about the helmet law repeal, Rendell told reporters the effects of smoking, eating red meat and drinking alcohol cost society much more than motorcycle accidents, but those habits are legal.

"We don't prevent people from smoking," he said, "and 20,000 Pennsylvanians die each year from smoking."

But an hour after a similar smoking ban bill, H.B. 1489, proposed by state Rep. Susan Cornell, R-Montgomery, failed to gain enough votes on June 7 to pass the state House Health and Human Services Committee, Rendell said he supported the bill.

"I know a lot of the legislators here believe that (smoking bans) should be done on a local basis ... but I believe a statewide ban would be good, and I'd be willing to sign it," the incumbent said.

Swann, told the Associated Press he would support legislation to outlaw smoking in Pennsylvania workplaces, but believes restaurant and bar owners should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow smoking in their establishments.

"You can't hire people based on whether they smoke or don't smoke," said Swann, who said he has never smoked. "It's an environment that people who choose not to smoke can't control necessarily, so smoking in the workplace I think is something that we can legislate against."

Swann also criticized the legalization of slot-machine gambling in Pennsylvania as poor public policy, even though his own property tax reform proposal requires its revenue.

He said he did not call for repealing the slots law because he believes the Legislature's 2004 vote of approval reflects popular support.

However, the legalization of slot machine gambling was never put to a public vote in a statewide referendum.

Instead, after taking millions of dollars in campaign contributions from gambling interests and gifts from gambling lobbyists, state lawmakers passed the 145-page bill by gutting an existing, unreleated two paragraph bill on the eve of a holiday recess in the early morning of July 2, 2004, and forcing a floor vote without any public debate.

Rendell, who made slot machines a focal point of his 2002 election campaign, signed the bill into law the next day, saying, "It isn't a panacea, but it certainly isn't the demon it's been made out to be."

Advocating the repeal of the slots law would be "a waste of my time and energy," Swann said. "I'd like to win the election."

This post was reprinted from my Home Turf blog on
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