FRANKFORT — Although the two sides have narrowed their differences, the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate still have no agreement on how to attack the rise in heroin addiction and trafficking.
The House passed an amended version of its original bill Wednesday night but the Senate refused to agree to that bill.
So the two chambers will appoint a conference committee, made up of members from both the House and Senate, to try to hammer out a compromise agreement during the interim veto period. The hope, according to all, is they can offer a compromise bill when lawmakers return on March 23 for two days that will then pass both chambers.
The Republican-controlled Senate passed its heroin bill back in January during the first week of the session. Sponsored by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, the Senate version seeks stiffer penalties than those acceptable to the House that does not want to undermine sentencing reforms passed in 2011 to reduce prison populations and costs. McDaniel’s bill would treat all sales of heroin, regardless of amount, the same as a Class C felony.
The Senate bill also increases funding for substance abuse treatment programs, re-directing savings form the 2011 sentencing reforms to pay for them. But the House contends those savings are already appropriated and aren’t available during the current biennium budget.
The House passed its own bill two weeks ago, but it differed from the Senate version in several respects, primarily on penalties. The bill, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, who also co-sponsored the 2011 sentencing reforms, adheres to those reforms by distinguishing between sales of 2 grams or less and trafficking in larger amounts by “commercial traffickers.”
In addition to the differences on penalties, the House wants a local option, needle-exchange program which have been shown to reduce blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis C. So far the Senate has said it is unwilling to go along with a needle exchange but a few senators have softened on their opposition to the idea. Local communities would have to approve the programs through their boards of health and local government and no tax money would be used to fund the needle exchanges.
Tuesday evening the House Judiciary Committee attached language to a separate Senate bill which “essentially mirrors” the provisions of the original House heroin bill. According to Tilley, the revised bill makes a few concessions to the Senate on minimum sentences but it would retain the three tiers of sentencing favored by the House, creating a third, Class B felony level of trafficking in amounts of a kilogram or more. The Senate wants to treat any sale of any amount as trafficking and a Class C felony.
The amended House version also appropriates $10 million for treatment programs in the current budget period – but without re-directing the already-appropriated savings from the 2011 bill.
Asked where they found the money, Tilley said it will be up to Gov. Steve Beshear to find the money within the current budget or surplus. Lawmakers have already passed bills appropriating money for a new medical research building at the University of Kentucky, a film tax credit, and tax exemption on vehicles owned by veterans. Combined with the $10 million for drug treatment, that total easily exceeds $30 million but the legislation does not identify a source for the money, meaning the governor must come up with it out of the current budgeted revenues.
Late Wednesday evening, the Senate refused to concur with the House on the amended heroin bill. The two chambers will now appoint members to a conference committee that will continue to work on a compromise between now and Marcb 23 when lawmakers return to consider any vetoes by Beshear.
The two chambers also couldn’t agree on a bill to shore up the teachers’ retirement system. The House wants to borrow $3.3 billion for the fund while interest rates are low and re-invest it at higher rates. The Senate wants to convene a task force to study solutions, as was done with the state employees’ retirement system. A conference committee will also work on that bill during the interim.
Neither chamber voted on a fix for the declining gas tax which finances the road fund. The tax has fallen from 32.5 cents per gallon last year to 27.6 cents now and is scheduled to fall to 22.5 cents on April 1. Without legislative action, the road fund is projected to fall about $150 million short in each year of the biennial budget.
Two other major pieces of legislation died without action by the Senate: a bill to allow public-private partnerships on infrastructure projects and a constitutional amendment to allow a local option sales tax of up to 1 percent to pay for time-limited, voter-approved projects.