Union Democrat staff

In the midst of California's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, you would think our legislators would be working 24/7 to stabilize the state's perilously balanced budget and install safeguards to insure against future crises.

You would be wrong.

As California teeters at the financial brink, State Sen. Jenny Oropeza has seen fit to introduce a bill banning smoking at all 279 state parks and beaches - including Calaveras Big Trees, Railtown 1897 and Columbia State Historic parks. The Long Beach Democrat's redundant and largely unenforceable bill cleared the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee last week. It is the latest legislative assault on the nation's most oppressed minority - smokers.

Smokers can't light up in restaurants or bars, on campuses, in government buildings and even, if they're riding with young children, behind the wheel their own cars. On top of that, some cities have banned smoking in condominium or apartment projects. Under this bill, anyone smoking in a state park will be hit with a $250 fine.

Cigarettes are also taxed to the hilt: A 62-cent federal tax increase kicked in on Wednesday, and the California Legislature is considering adding another $1.50 to the state tax, which could raise the per-pack price to nearly $7. Because smokers are a reviled, powerless minority, taxes and restrictions are viewed as politically correct and, by some, as a benevolent, paternalistic way to help these unfortunate addicts kick their habit.

So yes, Oropeza is piling on. But many might simply shrug, thinking that only smokers will suffer.

Others, after reading press releases about Senate Bill 4, might applaud her contentions that the legislation will reduce beach litter and cut fire danger in forested parks. But there are already numerous existing laws against littering and carelessly flipping away a burning cigarette.

Enforcement of existing litter laws would take care of irresponsible smokers who, without a pocket ashtray or soda can, jab their cigarettes out on our state beaches.

And numerous laws are aimed at careless smokers who might inadvertently start a forest or grass fire. The Vehicle Code outlaws ashing or discarding a cigarette from a car or truck. Other laws ban discarding lit cigarettes or unlit butts anywhere. And, most significantly, civil law allows Cal Fire to recover thousands or even millions of dollars in firefighting costs from any smoker who starts a fire.

With these safeguards in place, one wonders, what exactly would SB 4 accomplish beyond protecting the Great Outdoors from second-hand smoke.

Well, it might create jobs. Someone would have to post numerous No Smoking signs in our 274 beaches and parks. And rangers would have to enforce the law, rummaging through dark corners of parks for violators, As some parks encompass tens of thousands of acres, finding nicotine addicted recluses might be tough.

Dr. Todd Stolp, Tuolumne County's public health officer, is no fan off smoking. But even he questions Oropeza's bill and said that efforts might be better spent enforcing existing anti-smoking laws.

We agree, and urge California legislators get their priorities in line during these tough times and snuff out SB 4 with merciful dispatch.