While voicing concern about its impact on personal liberty, Gov. Sonny Perdue on Monday signed legislation that will outlaw smoking in most public places around the state, effective July 1.
Approval of the law puts to rest a watered-down version that McDuffie County Commissioners had been considering since November.
"Of course we'll use the ban that the governor signed because ours was less stringent than his, and we cannot pass an ordinance that is less restrictive," said County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton. "We can pass a local ordinance if we want it to be more restrictive, but if he signed it, I'm sure that's the one we'll use."
Gov. Perdue had publicly agonized over whether to sign the measure, noting that it would be a boon for public health but worrying that it eroded the ability of business owners and others to control what happens on their property.
"The public health argument carried the day," Gov. Perdue told reporters after a ceremony at the National Museum of Patriotism, during which he laid out many of his reservations before signing the bill.
The bill calls for indoor smoking to be outlawed in most public places except bars and restaurants that do not serve minors and small businesses with fewer than 10 employees.Anti-smoking advocates hailed the decision.
"This new law will significantly improve the health of all Georgians especially our children," said June Deen, vice president for public affairs for the American Lung Association of Georgia, in a statement released by the Georgia Alliance for Tobacco Prevention.
The governor infused the fate of the legislation with a sense of drama. Gov. Perdue's staff announced the event last week without specifying whether he would sign or veto the bill. And most of Perdue's statement, which was lenghty for a bill-signing event, focused on why he was nervous about the measure.
"I think for all the reasons I indicated, it was an agonizing decision for me," Gov. Perdue said.
The governor said he didn't make a final decision until this weekend. And he strongly denied that polls showing the law was popular with Georgians had any effect on his deliberations.
Throughout his remarks, Gov. Perdue repeatedly drew a line between what he called the motives of the bill, to protect Georgians from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke, and the methods, which he said limited people's right to make their own personal decisions.
"I want a healthy Georgia, but I want a Georgia that is free as well," he said.
Gov. Perdue also had sharp words for restaurant owners that the governor said had contacted him and urged him to sign the bill so that they could blame the state for a ban on smoking that they already wanted to institute in their buildings.
"It's dangerous where we as a nation get in a place where we want government to do things for us that we won't do for ourselves," he said.
The matter had split lawmakers in the governor's own party, even though most Republicans ultimately joined with most Democrats to create the lopsided majorities that the bill garnered in both the House and the Senate.
Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said he believed the issue was best handled by local governments, but said the vote had also caused him to think long and hard about the measure.
"It was probably one of the more difficult votes for me to decide what to do on in the Legislature this session," Rep. Fleming said.
After announcing his decision, Gov. Perdue noted to reporters that he could only say yes or no to the bill -- that he had no power to change it, even though he worried about some portions of the measure, such as a provision that keeps more stringent local ordinances in place.
"Part of the problem with being governor is, while you get the last vote, you don't get to amend the bill," he said.