Politics & Government

GOP-led Senate digs into legislative agenda, approving bills dealing with heroin and unions

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Senate plowed into its 2015 agenda on Thursday, approving bills that would crack down on heroin and mandatory union dues while Senate committees separately advanced bills to limit abortion access and the governor's regulatory power.

The heroin legislation — Senate Bill 5 — is the only one of the batch that is considered likely to survive the trip from the Republican-led Senate to the Democratic-led House, at least in some form. House members say they're preparing their own version of a heroin bill, but House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, have agreed that some sort of bill to address Kentucky's deadly heroin epidemic will come out of this 30-day lawmaking session.

"We frequently cite the fact that heroin-related overdoses have more than tripled in the past three years," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, in a floor speech. "But what we don't talk about is the unspoken path of additional destruction. We don't talk about the careers that are ruined — parents and spouses who are left hopeless and bankrupt from trying to help their loved ones — and we don't talk about the hundreds of children who are left without one — and in some cases, both — parents."

The Senate voted 36-0 in favor of SB 5, which would require tougher mandatory prison sentences for heroin traffickers while diverting millions of dollars to expand treatment options for heroin addicts, in local jails and at community mental health programs. It also would make it easier for police, firefighters and paramedics to carry naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, and it would establish a "good Samaritan" rule to encourage illegal drug users to report an overdose right away in exchange for deferred prosecution on related drug charges.

While some senators made suggestions to tweak parts of the bill in the House, nobody opposed it or sought to amend it on the Senate floor.

Several shared personal stories.

Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, said his 30-year-old brother-in-law, a chef in Nashville, died three months ago from a heroin overdose. Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, said he has watched his friends in Northern Kentucky go broke on expensive heroin addiction treatment programs for their children. Those addictions ended in death, Schickel said.

"Guess what? We don't know how to effectively treat this problem. I wish we did, but we don't," Schickel said. "We are not being truthful with ourselves and we are not being truthful with the public, because the past says that we cannot treat our way out of this problem."

Schickel said Kentucky's heroin problem can be traced in part to the legislature's own decisions of recent years. One new law reduced Kentucky's criminal penalties for heroin trafficking — something SB 5 largely would reverse — making Northern Kentucky more attractive for Cincinnati dealers who simply cross the Ohio River. Another new law reduced access to prescription painkillers, driving many opioid addicts from pills to the cheaper alternative of heroin.

On a more partisan note, the Senate then voted 24-12, with the Republican majority prevailing, to pass Senate Bill 1. It would allow people to work for unionized employers without joining the union. That measure is expected to die in the House.

Senate Republicans said reducing unions' power would make Kentucky more attractive to employers; Democrats said it simply was an attack on unions, which fight for better wages and benefits and also tend to fund Democratic political campaigns.

After the Senate adjourned, two committees met to approve bills desired by Senate GOP leaders.

The Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection — comprised of 14 men and no women — passed Senate Bill 4, to require that women have face-to-face counseling in the same room with a doctor or nurse at least 24 hours before they get an abortion.

The legislature passed a law in the 1990s to require that women get "informed consent," but it is being "circumvented" by women who are allowed to be counseled by telephone, said Albert Robinson, R-London, the committee's chairman.

Criticizing SB 4, Derek Selznick of the ACLU of Kentucky told the committee that Kentucky only has two abortion clinics, in Louisville and Lexington. Forcing women to take off work and travel twice to those cities from distant parts of the state — once for counseling and again for the procedure — could cost hundreds of dollars, Selznick said. As it's now written, the law lets women choose counseling that's best for them, he said.

Later, the Senate State and Local Government Committee approved along partisan lines a proposed constitutional amendment to give the legislature more authority over the governor's administrative regulations.

Senate Bill 2 specifies that an executive branch regulation that is disapproved by lawmakers would be void and unenforceable and could not be reissued in the same or similar language for at least a year.

Previous versions of the abortion and administrative regulation bills have died in the House in past years.