Politics & Government

Transportation budget, pain pill bill set for House vote

FRANKFORT — The House is set to vote Wednesday on a more than $4.5 billion transportation budget bill and a measure aimed at curbing prescription pain pill abuse after the proposals cleared separate committees on Tuesday.

House Bill 2, the transportation operating budget, and House Bill 1, the prescription drug measure, are the sole pieces of legislation to be considered in the special legislative session that started Monday. The session is costing taxpayers about $60,000 a day.

Gov. Steve Beshear called the special session after the legislature failed to pass a transportation budget and a measure designed to better regulate doctors who prescribe addictive medications on Thursday, the last day of the 60-day regular session.

It's unclear how long the special session will last. Beshear can call the session and set its agenda, but lawmakers will decide when to conclude their business.

The House Appropriations and Revenue Committee voted 25-2 to pass the Transportation Cabinet's operating budget, which contains more than $4.5 billion to fund the state's transportation projects.

Part of that bill includes funding for two new bridges over the Ohio River in Louisville. Some legislators expressed concern that tolls are going to be used to help fund those projects. The two new bridges — one downtown and one on the east end of Louisville — will have tolls, but two other bridges in Louisville will not, transportation officials have said.

State Reps. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Alecia Webb-Edgington, R-Fort Wright, were the only two lawmakers on the committee who voted against the measure. Webb-Edgington said she voted against the bill in part because it contained $12.5 million in new debt for an overhaul of the state's driver license computer system.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to approve HB 1 after more than two hours of testimony on the bill, which would move control of the state's prescription monitoring system to Attorney General Jack Conway's office and require physicians to use the system. Currently, only 25 percent of Kentucky physicians do so.

The measure also would limit ownership of pain clinics to physicians.

During the final weeks of the regular legislative session, the bill was changed to remove a mandate that all physicians use the prescription monitoring system. Also deleted was a $50 fee doctors must pay to use the system. Those changes were made at the urging of the Kentucky Medical Association.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, urged legislators on the House Judiciary Committee to approve the new bill, which restores the requirement that doctors participate in the monitoring system commonly called KASPER.

"We had a much better bill than what the Senate was considering," Stumbo said.

Eighty-nine percent of physicians who use KASPER, which allows doctors to see if a patient is receiving pain medications from another doctor, change their prescription practices after checking the system, Stumbo said.

Law enforcement, county and city officials and business leaders testified in favor of HB 1, saying that prescription drug abuse in Kentucky has become an epidemic.

Three people in Kentucky die each day of drug overdoses. Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses have struggled to find workers who can pass initial drug screens. Moreover, worker's compensation numbers show more and more people addicted to pain medications. Those employees are not returning to work or are returning to work impaired, Adkisson said.

Rob Sanders, the commonwealth's attorney in Kenton County, said innocent people are being killed on Kentucky roads by drivers who are impaired by prescription medication. Sanders said his office also has seen cases in which mothers who are addicted to prescription drugs roll over and smother their children.

One mother passed out while taking prescription drugs, only to find that her baby had rolled over onto a heater and died, he said.

Representatives of the Kentucky Medical Association expressed reservations about moving the prescription monitoring system to the attorney general's office, saying the move would give that office too much unchecked power over doctors.

"The KMA does not think that's a good idea," said Bill Doll, a lawyer who represents the KMA.

The House Judiciary Committee voted to approve the bill, with three members choosing to vote "pass" — a vote that is neither for or against the bill. Those voting to pass were Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas; Rep. Steve Rudy, R-Paducah; and Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said a prescription drug abuse bill that was filed in the Senate on Monday is the final compromise bill that the House and Senate did not pass late Thursday.

Asked how Stumbo's latest bill will fare in the Senate, Stivers said, "It's going to be an interesting set of facts. I don't think this is a situation of party politics as much as the experiences of individual legislators in their own regions.

"The Speaker (Stumbo) and I are probably closer on what to do than maybe some other people. It's all the reality of having the ability to garner the requisite votes to pass something that has the ability to make an impact. I'm not just going to pass something just to feel good."