Politics & Government

Kentucky lawmakers send Beshear a torrent of legislation before adjourning at 3:20 a.m.

FRANKFORT — State lawmakers adjourned at 3:20 a.m. Wednesday, ending the 2015 General Assembly with a torrent of legislation headed to Gov. Steve Beshear's desk.

Among the last-minute winners were bills to curb the state's heroin addiction epidemic; extend civil protective orders to dating partners; freeze the gas tax that pays for the state Road Fund; and expand the use of booster seats to children through the age of 8.

Lawmakers could not reach agreement on bills to shore up the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System, which faces a $14 billion unfunded liability, or to allow high school students to serve on superintendent screening committees.

And in a surprise move, the Senate approved an amended bill — after 2 a.m. — that would have doubled the allowable size of state campaign donations from individuals, party caucuses and political action committees. The House rejected that by a 49-to-43 vote after some House members protested "back-room deals passed in the middle of the night."

"Overall, the General Assembly did a a pretty good job, even if it took us to the last day, to the final hours," House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told reporters as his chamber cleared. "For a short session, it was a pretty darn good session."

The keystone legislation of 2015 was the heroin bill, which Beshear said he happily will sign Wednesday morning.

"This is the legislation Kentuckians have been waiting for — a robust and comprehensive package that attacks the spectrum of heroin abuse, from punishing traffickers to supporting addiction treatment to protecting public health through needle exchanges," Beshear said late Tuesday.

Senate Bill 192 is "a comprehensive, thoughtful public health solution to our state's most critical public health crisis," said House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, urging his colleagues to vote for it Tuesday night. Tilley and a handful of other House and Senate members spent days hammering out a compromise version that both chambers could accept.

In its final form, SB 192 offered two points the House fought for: a local option for needle-exchange programs for heroin addicts, to be run by county health departments, and "Good Samaritan" language that would protect drug users from criminal charges if they report an overdose to the authorities.

On a third point, criminal penalties for heroin dealers, SB 192 includes tougher prison sentences the Senate wanted alongside the recognition, sought by the House, that some minor drug peddlers are addicts who need treatment more than prison. The bill establishes a new crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, of importing heroin into Kentucky with the intent to distribute or sell it. Northern Kentucky lawmakers say that will help police to stem the flow of heroin coming across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

"There should be no mercy for those individuals, those people who bring death into the commonwealth," Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, said in favor of that section of the bill.

For heroin trafficking at less than 2 grams, the bill would bring up to five years in prison for a first offense and up to 10 years for subsequent offenses, and then work its way up through longer prison sentences at the 2-gram and 100-gram marks.

Heroin traffickers would have to serve at least half of their prison sentence before they would be eligible for parole if they were convicted of a Class C felony or higher or if they were caught with one or more items of paraphernalia, such as excess cash, scales or packaging instruments.

But small-time dealers, convicted of a Class D felony and without trafficking paraphernalia, would not have to serve the 50 percent if the sentencing judge determined that they are addicts.

SB 192 includes other provisions the House and Senate generally agreed on all along, including greater access by emergency workers to naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, and more state funding and Medicaid support for addiction treatment programs.

"Will it work? Tune in in 12 months for an answer," said Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville. "It is very difficult to rehabilitate someone who has become addicted to drugs."

The legislature also gave final passage to House Bill 8, which will extend civil protective orders to unmarried dating partners and add stalking as an offense that can justify a protective order. Kentucky is one of the final states to offer such protections to people who aren't married or living with each other or who don't have children by their alleged abuser.

And lawmakers sent to Beshear another measure, HB 315, the booster seat bill. Currently, the law says children younger than 7 and less than 40 inches tall should use booster seats or face a $50 penalty, plus a $10 mandatory donation to the Traumatic Brain Injury Trust Fund. HB 315 will raise those requirements to age 8 and 57 inches.

In votes just before and after midnight, the Senate and House approved a plan to stabilize the Road Fund, which is used to build and maintain roads, by not allowing the gas tax to drop by 5.1 cents a gallon on April 1.

The plan would drop the tax from 27.6 cents a gallon to 26 cents and then make 26 cents the new floor for the tax. Instead of quarterly adjustments to the tax based on the average wholesale price of gasoline, the adjustments would occur annually, beginning July 2016.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, strongly opposed the new plan, but the Senate approved it on a 29-9 vote. The House followed with a 67-29 vote and sent it to Beshear.

Stumbo said early Tuesday that there were not enough votes in the House to freeze the state’s gas tax, but he later said lawmakers were having second thoughts, in some cases after hearing from their local elected officials worried about the loss of road funds.

"Kentuckians understand it takes money to repair the roads if they want their roads repaired,” Stumbo said.

Stumbo and other House leaders rejected an informal offer by Senate leaders to put $50 million into the teachers' pension fund, which faces a $14 billion unfunded liability. Stumbo had called for $3.3 billion in bonds for the fund; the Senate said that plan was too risky and suggested instead that a task force study teacher pensions this year and report back to the legislature.

The $50 million "is like spitting into the ocean and expecting it to rise," Stumbo said. "It's not nearly enough."

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate acted on House Bill 236, which has been the subject of two student rallies at the Capitol this year.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, initially would have allowed a high school student to be appointed to a screening committee for a new superintendent.

The Senate changed the bill Tuesday to allow the student to sit on the committee, but only as a non-voting member. The Senate also attached to the bill a proposal by Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, to permit students to voluntarily express religious viewpoints in schools.

The Senate approved the legislation on a 27-9 vote, effectively killing it because the House did not want to deal with Robinson's proposal in its final hours.

"Unfortunately today the Senate passed a version of HB 236 that they knew was dead on arrival in the House," said Andrew Brennen of the Prichard Committee student voice team. "We are disappointed that student voice could not be heard above political games."