FRANKFORT — With one work day left until lawmakers take a nearly two-week break, the House has unveiled a compromise plan to address Kentucky's heroin epidemic that it hopes the Senate will accept.
Late Tuesday the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a gutted and rewritten Senate Bill 192, which originally addressed inmate health care but is now 35 pages about treatment for heroin addiction and trafficking penalties.
The House expects to vote on the bill Wednesday and then ask the Senate to agree with its changes. However, House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said it's likely the Senate will object, throwing the bill to a conference committee that will try to iron out the differences.
By attaching the heroin language to a minor Senate bill ready for a House floor vote, the House can beat the legislative session deadline while also avoiding political questions as to who gets credit for the bill, Tilley said. The House Democratic majority originally backed House Bill 213 as the primary heroin bill, while the Senate Republican majority backed the competing Senate Bill 5, sponsored by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, who is running for lieutenant governor this year with GOP gubernatorial candidate James Comer, the state's agricultural commissioner.
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"Unfortunately, politics do play a part in it for some," Tilley said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, thanked the House members for their negotiations so far, but he agreed the bill probably will go to a conference committee. There might not be a final bill until lawmakers return to Frankfort on March 23 and 24 to consider any vetoes issued by Gov. Steve Beshear and wrap up this year's session, Westerfield said.
Lawmakers said the chambers likely will debate over:
■ Needle exchange: The House would give local governments the option of establishing exchange programs where heroin addicts could swap used needles and syringes for new paraphernalia. The Senate objects, arguing that needle exchanges enable addicts to continue their deadly habit. Tilley said needle exchanges bring addicts into the public-health system, where they might get treatment; reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C among addicts; and cut down on the number of contaminated needles littering public places.
■ Penalties for dealers: With SB 192, the House has dropped its original plan for a lighter prison sentence — up to three years — for small-time "peddlers" caught with two grams of heroin or less. But the House still reserves the stiffest penalties for people convicted of trafficking in the largest amounts, such as "aggravated traffickers" caught with a kilogram or more.
The Senate's heroin bill calls for anyone convicted of trafficking, regardless of the amount, to face up to 10 years in prison, and for at least half their sentence to be served before they are eligible for parole.
■ A Good Samaritan rule: The House is standing by language that says drug users "shall not be charged" with drug-related crimes if they report an overdose to authorities and remain with the victim. SB 192 does include "good faith" language, though, to clarify that drug users couldn't use this exemption to wave off an approaching police officer by suddenly pointing to a fellow user and falsely claiming that he has overdosed.
The Senate prefers a Good Samaritan rule that allows police to file charges in such cases, but gives prosecutors the authority to defer prosecution if they choose. Tilley said that would have a chilling effect on drug users when they're considering whether to dial 911.
The House has tried to address additional concerns raised by senators in recent weeks. In a section of the bill to allow pharmacists to prescribe naloxone — a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose — to addicts, their family and friends, the House added language to say that state regulations and a protocol approved by a doctor would oversee such dispensing and require mandatory education for those who get the drug. At a February hearing, senators warned that there can be medical risks to untrained people administering naloxone.
In other business Tuesday, the House rejected major changes the Senate made in several of House's bills. This sets up conference committee battles where lawmakers will try to negotiate compromises.
On teacher pensions, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said his chamber won't accept the Senate's substitute version of his House Bill 4. The Senate removed $3.3 billion in bonds that Stumbo proposed to bail out the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System and replaced them with authorization for a task force to study the funding problems of teacher pensions.
On campaign contributions, the House voted to reject a Senate substitute to House Bill 203 that would double how much money donors can give to state political candidates, from $1,000 per election to $2,000, and then indexed to rise with inflation.
Other House bills, mostly routine and headed toward final passage, were larded by Republican senators with controversial language on waiting periods before abortions; where transgendered students can use the bathroom; and religious expression at public schools. The language possibly dooms the bills.
GOP senators said they feel compelled to push these amendments because the House has ignored the Senate bills that originally contained the language.