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Kentucky General Assembly Adjourns For Veto Session Without Passing a Heroin Bill

Kevin Willis

The Kentucky General Assembly adjourned late Wednesday night for a week and a half while Gov. Steve Beshear considers vetoes—and no bill addressing the state’s rising heroin problems had been passed.

Lawmakers will have two days to pass a final bill: March 23 and 24.

Both chambers have selected members for a conference committee, which will now try to hammer out the final details of a compromise.

Senate President Robert Stivers remains confident that a heroin bill will be finalized over the course of the break.

“I think the discussions when we come back everything would be resolved by that time, because when we get back on the 23rd and 24th I think the die will be cast and hopefully everything will be prepared,” Stivers said.

The starting point of discussion will be a bill sponosored Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat, who has worked with House and Senate leader to come up with a compromise piece of legislation.

“It represents some advancement in the progress that we’ve had in meeting with our Senate counterparts over the last several weeks,” Tilley said during a House Floor speech on Wednesday.

The bill looks a lot like a version the House passed last month: it would punish heroin traffickers with increasing penalties depending on how much of the drug they have, and it would allow local health districts to set up needle exchanges.

But the bill differs in a couple key ways that might make it more palatable with state Senators, who passed their own version of the heroin bill in early January.

First, the bill would require high-level offenders to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence before they could be eligible for parole. Secondly, the bill would make the overdose-reversing drug naloxone more available, but would require physicians to supervise the distribution of the drug. The previous House version had allowed pharmacists to distribute the drug without approval from a doctor.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican who co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said the biggest hang-ups for the Senate will be the sentencing guidelines and the needle exchange.

The new House bill would sentence traffickers who possess two grams or less of heroin with a Class D felony, those who possess above two grams and under a kilogram would receive a Class C felony and those who possess a kilogram or more would receive a Class B felony.

The Senate version would charge all traffickers with a Class C felony.

“I trusted prosecutors to make that call, and the prosecutors I worked with in Christian County and that I knew made that call, I think pretty fairly,” Westerfield said. “It bothers me that they’d be getting a softer touch at a Class D level instead of a Class C level felony.”

Westerfield said that the bill included several points of compromise between the House and Senate versions, including a way to connect addicts who overdose with treatment.

“If you take them to a hospital maybe the hospital makes that call. That was just our first crack at that,” Westerfield said. “There are a number of agreements in the bill but I don’t think we’re there yet. So we’ll keep working.”

Tilley, the sponsor of the House version of the bill, said he was firm on including separate sentencing guidelines to avoid over-prosecuting low-level offenders.

“The market will continue to replace these lower level traffickers and will continue to increase our prison population with no change in the drug problem,” Tilley said.

Political Maneuvering
Interestingly, the bill is neither HB 213 nor SB 5 – the heroin bills filed in the House and Senate earlier this year. Rather, lawmakers stripped an unrelated bill, SB 192, of its content and added the heroin bill language.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Taylor Mill and lieutenant governor candidate for James Comer, was the sponsor of SB 5. When asked if having McDaniel’s name on the bill was a problem, Tilley, a Democrat, replied “I think sadly for some, it probably was.”

Another lieutenant governor candidate has tried to make her mark on the bill. Rep. Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat and running mate to Jack Conway, added an amendment to provide $10 million for addiction treatment. That provision could have a target painted on it for McDaniels and other Senate Republicans on the committee.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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