FRANKFORT — In early January, Gov. Steve Beshear presented to lawmakers his wish list for this year's legislative session, emphasizing the need for a bill to address the state's heroin epidemic.
About seven hours after Kentucky's 2015 General Assembly ended its work at 3:20 a.m. Wednesday, the elated Democratic governor signed into law a bill to toughen penalties for heroin traffickers and provide more treatment options for addicts.
"It's a new day in the fight against heroin in our commonwealth," Beshear said to a room crowded with legislators, law enforcement officials, health advocates and people who have lost loved ones to heroin overdoses.
The bill-signing ceremony was a highlight for a lame-duck governor in his final legislative session. Beshear, who leaves office in December, also hit the mark on several other issues in this year's session.
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His legislative successes included a call to expand court protective orders to include dating couples, stronger booster seat requirements for children in cars and a plan to stabilize the Road Fund.
"I think it was one of the most productive sessions in the recent history of Kentucky," Beshear told reporters.
"The heroin bill was our top priority," he said. "The booster seat bill will save lives and dating violence should ease because of that legislation."
Beshear also said he worked hard during the session to freeze the state's gas tax to stabilize the Road Fund that pays for highway work.
The governor said he invited key legislators working on the Road Fund issue at the Governor's Mansion last Thursday night to discuss the issue and for breakfast at the Mansion Tuesday morning.
"We were actively calling legislators and county officials to support the gas tax bill," he said. "It worked."
Just before midnight Tuesday, lawmakers signed off on a last-minute compromise to lower the state's gas tax from 27.6 cents a gallon to 26 cents and freeze it at that level. Without the change, the tax would have dropped 5.1 cents a gallon on April 1.
The state will still lose about $100 million from recent drops in the gas tax, which is tied to the wholesale price of gas, "but it would have meant a loss of about $300 million if we didn't have the gas tax bill," Beshear said.
Reporters reminded Beshear that some of his legislative proposals to lawmakers in January failed during the session, but Beshear said he believes "progress was made" on each of them and predicted that lawmakers will approve them in upcoming sessions.
Among the proposals pushed by Beshear that died in this year's legislative session was a statewide smoking ban in workplaces and public indoor places, a constitutional amendment to give local governments the right to pass their own temporary sales tax increase to pay for building projects, and legislation that would clear the way for public-private partnerships on large transportation projects.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, called Beshear "a facilitator and mediator" in this year's legislative session, especially on the heroin and gas tax bills.
In his State of the Commonwealth Address in January, Beshear made no mention of two other major issues that lawmakers wrangled with in the session's final hours, though without success.
They were the taxpayer-subsidized pension systems for school teachers, which faces a $14 billion unfunded liability, and doubling from $1,000 to $2,000 per candidate the amount individuals could contribute in state elections.
On the pension issue, the Democratic House wanted to authorize $3.3 billion in bonds for the teachers' retirement system while the Republican Senate wanted to hold off on any new debt until a study of the system's financing and oversight structure could be completed.
Both Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said they expect legislators to study the teachers' retirement system in the interim before lawmakers begin the 2016 General Assembly next Jan. 5.
"I can go along with a study as long as it is fair and equitable," Stumbo said.
Stivers said current retirees and teachers have nothing to fear from a study, but he left open the possibility of some benefit changes for new hires.
Debate in the House on the campaign contribution proposal early Wednesday morning was intense.
The plan, which never took the form of a bill or received a public hearing during the session, was instead attached to another bill as an amendment. Opponents of the plan in the House seized on that fact in floor speeches that were delivered well after 2 a.m.
"There was not a single minute of public testimony on the bill because the bill was hatched in the dark and presented in a Senate committee without any advance notice whatsoever," Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, told colleagues.
The House voted 49-43 to reject the Senate's campaign-finance measure just before ending the legislative session.
Stivers said Wednesday afternoon that he disagreed with some of the comments made on the House floor about the measure.
Beshear said the death of the bill would not harm state elections.
An unexpected survivor on the last day of the session was a bill to require the use of ignition interlocks for people convicted of drunk driving with aggravating circumstances, such as driving more than 30 mph over the speed limit or having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or greater within two hours after operating a vehicle.
Because the final hours of the session spanned two days — from 1 p.m. Tuesday to 3:20 a.m. Wednesday, lawmakers will be paid for working Wednesday.
Leaders had hoped to avoid another day of pay by ending at midnight Tuesday. Each day of the session costs taxpayers about $66,000. The entire session that started in January is expected to cost about $3.56 million.
Stivers noted Wednesday that the legislature missed two days because of snow and that the Constitution says the session could have run for 30 days but concluded in only 29.
He said he would leave it up to the public and the media to determine whether this year's legislature was successful.
Stumbo said lawmakers "did a pretty good job, even if it took us to the last day, to the final hours."
"For a short session, it was a pretty darn good session," he said.