AUGUSTA, Maine -- A petition drive to overturn the state's ban on smoking in bars has stalled and will fail to meet a Feb. 2 deadline for putting the issue on the November ballot, an organizer said.
Instead, the Maine Freedom Committee will submit the signatures to the Legislature in 2005 in hopes lawmakers will amend the law or send it to voters, said Stavros Mendros of the Maine Freedom Committee.
Mendros, a former Republican lawmaker from Lewiston, said the campaign did not have enough funding to meet this year's deadline for petitions.
"The money wasn't there," Mendros said. "It's hard to do it with an all-volunteer effort."
Initially, the group hoped to overturn the law through a "people's veto," which would have required them to turn in signatures last September. When they were unable to make that deadline, their next chance became February, which would have put them on the ballot in November.
The delay signals that the campaign to gather signatures and stop the smoking ban hasn't gone well.
"I do believe it does spell doom for this effort," said Becky Birrell Smith, program coordinator for the Maine Coalition on Smoking or Health. "In every other state and municipality that's enacted this type of legislation, the popularity of the ban increases month by month."
Mendros said that on Election Day in November the group gathered 10,000 to 20,000 signatures. But they would need 50,519 valid signatures to have the issue placed on a ballot.
Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state, said the group has one year from the day they took out the petitions to gather signatures. That gives them a deadline of Oct. 16, 2004.
If the signatures are approved, they would be presented to the Legislature in February 2005.
State health officials, legislators, and antismoking groups supported the bill, in part, to protect the health of people who work in bars.
Mendros, who does not smoke, said people who work in bars know what to expect.
"Most everyone I know, whether they smoke or not, is against it," he said.
Enforcement of the smoking ban was supposed to begin yesterday. Individual violators face a fine of $100 per offense and bar owners face a fine of $100 a day that they are not in compliance.
The bigger concern for bar owners, however, is that running afoul of the smoking ban is a violation of state liquor law. The severest penalties would be the suspension or revocation of a liquor license. An assistant state attorney general has been assigned to work on compliance full time.