Politics & Government

Unable to compromise, Kentucky lawmakers may settle for scaled-down heroin bill

In this 2013 file photo, Senate President Robert Stivers gave a floor speech.
In this 2013 file photo, Senate President Robert Stivers gave a floor speech. AP

FRANKFORT — The General Assembly might pass a scaled-down bill aimed at curbing heroin use next week that skips the issues on which the House and Senate disagree, notably a local option for needle-exchange programs and tougher across-the-board penalties for dealers, lawmakers said Thursday.

A conference committee with members from both chambers met for about two hours Thursday morning to review the differences between their heroin bills. However, lawmakers didn't accomplish much other than agreeing where they disagree on drug-fighting strategy.

"The Senate and the House want to get to the same place. We want to make sure we're punishing the true commercial traffickers," House Judiciary chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said after the talks broke at lunchtime.

If the conference committee can't reach a deal on the most controversial parts of the bill, lawmakers should put together a proposal based on where they do agree and submit that for legislative approval Monday when the General Assembly returns from its veto break, Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, told reporters.

That could leave a relatively modest bill that offers better public access to naloxone, a drug that quickly can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose; the commitment of an unspecified sum of money for addiction treatment and related services, starting in the next two-year state budget; better reporting of overdose deaths by local officials; and more addiction treatment through the Medicaid program.

Tilley said he agreed with Stivers' idea. Both chambers want to avoid a repeat of last year's legislative session, when a heroin bill died on the House floor in the final minutes before adjournment because lawmakers couldn't reach a consensus.

During the first nine months of 2014, at least 723 Kentucky deaths were attributed to a drug overdose, with heroin involved in 27 percent of those cases, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy. Heroin deaths have plagued every region of the state, rural and urban alike, fueled by opioid addicts switching from pain pills.

In the conference committee, senators asked House members about the funding sources for addiction treatment in their bill, including $10 million added last week by Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris. This isn't a budget year, when state spending is decided, and the House never identified where some of that money was supposed to come from, senators said.

"Frankly, what you've done is direct the secretary (of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet) to find this $10 million in his budget," said Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill. "That's what it does. And we know the difficulties there."

Tilley assured his fellow conferees, "We're told it's hard money," meaning it exists and is available in the state budget. He said he would get details and provide them later.

Afterward, on another item, Tilley told reporters, "We're insistent on the needle-exchange program," but he acknowledged that it might not have enough support to survive a Senate vote.

Supporters say needle exchanges bring addicts into the public health system, where they might receive treatment; reduce the transmission of bloodborne diseases, including hepatitis C, among addicts; and cut down on the number of contaminated needles littering parks, playgrounds and other public places. However, critics, including a number of senators, say the programs enable addicts at public expense.

The House and Senate members also debated proposed penalties for heroin trafficking. The Senate wants tougher prison sentences for everyone convicted of selling any amount of heroin. The House wants to segregate small-time dealers with their own addiction problems from major traffickers and reserve the stiffest sentences for the latter. In large part, the House approach reflects current state law.

Traffickers are smart enough to know the law and avoid more serious felony charges by not getting caught with much heroin in their possession, McDaniel told the House members.

"We need to get the dealers who are skirting the penalties through these quantity restrictions," he said. "We've got to put them away for a long time."

But Tilley said no evidence-based study since the federal "war on drugs" began in 1971 supports the theory that longer prison sentences discourage drug dealers. Instead, Tilley said, the laws that work best are those that disrupt sales networks by reducing demand for drugs through addiction treatment.

Lawmakers are to return to the Capitol on Monday to begin the final two days of this year's session. They have been on recess since March 11 while Gov. Steve Beshear considers vetoes for any bill already passed.

On other major bills in limbo during the veto break, Stivers said the Senate would vote Monday on a measure to extend civil-protective orders to dating partners and add stalking as an offense that would justify a protective order.

If the Senate approves that measure, House Bill 8, it would return to the House for concurrence with a minor change.

Stivers said he didn't want to give odds on the legislature approving a bill to stabilize the state Road Fund, which faces declining revenue from the state gas tax. Recent drops in wholesale gas prices are rapidly eroding the fund, which pays for road and bridge projects.

Stivers said he doesn't consider freezing the state's gas tax to be a tax increase, but some legislators think otherwise.