A state legislator wants to put the question to voters: Should smoking be prohibited in Michigan workplaces, including bars and restaurants?

It's a question well worth asking, one state voters rightly should have the opportunity to answer.

State Sen. Tupac Hunter, a Detroit Democrat, last month proposed a workplace smoking ban question for the November 2010 state ballot. A ballot issue would leave the fate of public smoking to the citizens of Michigan and yank what's undeniably a public health issue from state politicians' greedy hands.

The long arms of the tobacco and restaurant lobbies in Michigan for years snuffed any attempts to regulate the spewing of tobacco-based carcinogens into non-smokers' lungs. They accomplished that goal by shoveling copious amounts of cash, travel and other perks into state politicians' insatiable maws.

Think baby birds in a nest screeching for worms.

The predictable result: lockstep, nonsensical braying from politicians and business and restaurant owners that they should decide, or (cue The Star Spangled Banner) the market should decide, whether smokers' rights outweighed those of everyone else, including nonsmoking customers and employees, the latter of whom faced this choice: breathe poison or hit the road.

So smokers continued to rule the roost, and their toxic discharges ruined the air for everyone within lungshot.

Hunter's legislation is rooted in a cute little chess game state pols played last year. Democrats typically have pushed for smoking regulation, while Republicans normally claimed the let-the-market-rule ground.

Democrats hold the majority in the state House, and last year made a run at a smoking ban, though they included huge loopholes particularly designed to exempt casinos, as well as smoke shops, bingo halls, horse racing facilities, etc. The Republican-controlled Senate countered by proposing a full ban, an arms-crossed, all-or-nothing position that effectively stalemated any earnest attempts at regulating smoking.

In the end, neither side looked good. And the public saw it as just one more example of state politics as usual.

Hunter's idea is known as a legislative referendum, and must make its way through the House and Senate and earn Gov. Jennifer Granholm's OK before it could make it to the ballot.

True, there's plenty of room for political subterfuge, and frankly, it'd be a surprise to see politicians agree to let voters decide and wave goodbye to all that lobbyist loot.

But Hunter's proposal at least can serve one purpose: it keeps smoking ban legislation on the front-burner and could prompt grassroots groups to gather signatures for a politician-proof ballot proposal of their own.

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