FRANKFORT — With time running out on this year's lawmaking session, a Senate committee late Monday approved two bills designed to curb the state's heroin epidemic, hoping the House would accept one before this year's legislative session ends at midnight Tuesday.
Senate President Robert Stivers told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Senate Bill 192 contained all the provisions House and Senate negotiators agreed on last week plus provisions regarding the three main disagreements between the chambers.
The points of contention between the Democratic House and Republican Senate are allowing a needle exchange for addicts, subject to approval of local governments; enacting stronger penalties for traffickers; and not charging a person who reports a heroin overdose, a provision known as the Good Samaritan.
Stivers said a person trafficking in less than 2 grams could be charged with a Class D felony, subject up to five years in prison. People trafficking in more than that amount and those who bring in heroin from other states would be charged with Class C felonies, which call for longer prison sentences.
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Stivers, R-Manchester, said the bill basically was the result of an agreement a House-Senate conference committee reached in principle last week and decided to take back to their party caucuses
Although the House backed away from the proposal Saturday afternoon, Stivers said, he successfully encouraged the committee to approve the bill.
He also successfully presented to the committee HB 413. It contains all the agreements between the House and Senate but none of the provisions about needle exchanges, tougher penalties or Good Samaritans.
He called it a "scaled-down bill."
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved it, too.
Stivers later said the full Senate would vote on the two bills Tuesday and send them to the House for its consideration.
Some members of the Senate committee raised concerns that the panel's action could harm negotiations between the two chambers on what many have called the most important issue of the 2015 General Assembly.
There are about 22 deaths attributable to heroin overdoses every month in Kentucky.
House Judiciary chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said in an email Monday that he was "still confident we can find a compromise before the session is through."
Lawmakers stutter-stepped through most of the second-to-last day of the 2015 legislative session, meeting sporadically Monday as they tried to reach deals on several big issues.
Also left in limbo are bills to prop up the ailing teachers' pension fund and stabilize the state Road Fund. Leaders of the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate are negotiating through conference committees.
Stivers said late in the day that negotiations on the weighty issues had not collapsed, but he also acknowledged that no resolutions had been found.
He expressed optimism that agreements could be reached before the session is scheduled to end Tuesday. He said he did not expect lawmakers to change their calendar. By law, they could meet for two additional days, but the Constitution requires them to adjourn for the year by March 30.
Stivers said a proposal was in the offing to help the Road Fund, which pays for state and local transportation projects, but he declined to elaborate, saying several "key people" have not been made aware of it.
At a rally in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday morning, business groups urged the legislature to set a statutory floor under the average wholesale price of gas, which is used to calculate the gas tax. Unless lawmakers act immediately, the gas tax — already in decline as gas prices have dropped — will fall an additional 5.1 cents a gallon on April 1. State officials say that could drain $153 million from the Road Fund over the next year.
Privately, lawmakers talked about how to protect the Road Fund. But publicly, both chambers are reluctant to support anything that could be used against them in campaigns as a tax increase. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity has lobbied lawmakers and run radio ads in recent days to oppose "the gas hike ... for special interests."
The House already has voted for a gas-tax freeze, so if the Republican-led Senate wants action taken this session, it needs to act now, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said earlier in the day.
Leaders also continued negotiating Monday over a House proposal to borrow $3.3 billion through bonds to shore up the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System. The Senate says that much debt is too risky, and it's promoting a task force to study the teachers' pension system and report back to the legislature at year's end.
As a compromise, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has suggested the state authorize borrowing the full $3.3 billion, but hold part of it back until the study is completed.
Earlier in the day, the Senate swore in its newest member, Republican Steve West of Bourbon County, who recently won a special election to represent the 27th District.