2015 General Assembly

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The opposing sides of the 2015 beer battle topped the list of lobbying spending during the first two months of the Kentucky General Assembly, according recently released numbers from the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

Spending reports only become available a month later because of filing deadlines.

Anheuser-Busch, Kentuckians for Entrepreneurs & Growth and Kentucky Beer Wholesalers were among the top-five spenders during the session, dropping a combined $483,830 on lobbying expenses and advertising in January and February.

Anheuser-Busch unsuccessfully fought against a bill that will forbid out-of-state beer brewers from owning distributors in the state. With the backing of craft beer and local distributors, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear in early March.

Both Anheuser-Busch and Kentuckians for Entrepreneurs & Growth aired TV and radio advertisements across the state, with AB over doubling KEG’s advertising dollars.

Anheuser-Busch says it will have to close the distributorships it owns in Louisville and Owensboro by the end of this year, but is still “reviewing its legal options,” saying that the law violates the Kentucky and U.S. Constitutions.

About $4.2 million was spent on lobbying in total. Here’s a rundown of the top spenders.

Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons

On the last day of the Kentucky General Assembly’s 2015 session, Attorney General Jack Conway called on legislators to pass a bill to deal with the state’s growing heroin problem.

“I hope here on the final day of the legislative session that the legislature gets its act together,” Conway said during a news conference.

So far, lawmakers have been squabbling over differing versions of the bill. A heroin bill died in the final minutes of last year’s session.

Conway, a Democrat who is also running for governor, said the bill should include tougher penalties for major heroin traffickers and more funding for treatment. He also called for a bill that would make an overdose-reversing drug called naloxone more available. His stance is the same as House Democrats.

“Four simple provisions that are relatively non-controversial that need to be passed, that need to be passed by midnight tonight because people are dying, because law enforcement officials are having trouble dealing with the problem and prosecutors need help in trying to rid our streets of this scourge,” Conway said.

A committee headed by Conway and First Lady Jane Beshear has distributed 2,000 naloxone kits to the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Northern Kentucky.

The total cost for the kits is over $100,000. The kits were funded as part of a $32 million settlement between the state and two pharmaceutical companies. The settlement money has also gone to fund nonprofit treatment programs across the state and provide users with “scholarships” to treatment programs.

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With two working days to go, Kentucky lawmakers still haven’t nailed down legislation to address the state’s growing heroin problem and it’s ailing teachers pension system.

On Friday, legislators from both chambers met for hours, trying to craft compromises on the bills.

A solution is starting to take shape to help shore up the teachers pension system, but the House and Senate remain divided on sentencing guidelines in the heroin bill.

Lawmakers have until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to pass laws.

Heroin

Representatives and senators were still at odds Friday afternoon over needle exchanges, sentencing guidelines for heroin traffickers, and whether to include a “good Samaritan” clause that would provide immunity to those who report heroin overdoses.

Senate President Robert Stivers repeatedly suggested that the committee stop arguing and produce a bill that only includes points that lawmakers agree on: making overdose-reversing drug naloxone more available and increasing funding for treatment programs.

Kentucky LRC

Kentucky lawmakers say they’ve come a long way in coming up with a legislative solution to the state’s heroin epidemic, but no consensus has emerged on the biggest sticking point—how to punish heroin traffickers.

The House wants to keep the state’s current law that gives low-level heroin traffickers lighter prison sentences. The Senate wants strict sentencing across the board.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Taylor Mill Republican and candidate for lieutenant governor, said strict sentencing guidelines would still allow prosecutors to use discretion and provide reduced charges for “peddlers.”

“We believe that we need to trust our prosecutors locally to make these decisions and we trust our prosecutors,” he said.

On Thursday, a conference committee made up of six representatives and six senators attempted to hammer out final details of the bill. To get heroin legislation passed in this session, both the state House and Senate would have to vote on a final version of the bill on Monday or Tuesday of next week.

Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat and author of the House version of the bill, said lawmakers need to “legislate to the bad” prosecutors—to prevent low-level traffickers and addicts from entering the prison system.

Tilley said current law already has tough penalties for traffickers, and he pointed out that low-level drug dealers would receive a Class C felony if they received a second trafficking offense.

Senators also took issue with a House proposal to add $10 million dollars for drug treatment to the bill.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, said House lawmakers need to identify the source for the additional funding.

“I think we all have to take a realistic look: where are those monies coming from,” Stivers asked.

The provision for additional money had been proposed by Rep. Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor.

Kentucky LRC

Once-dead legislation that would allow Kentucky restaurants to claim a tax break for charitable food donations has been resurrected in the final days of this year’s legislative session.

The bill would provide restaurants with a tax refund worth 20 percent of the fair market value of food donated to charities.

It’s unclear how much the state would miss in revenue lost from the tax break. Jason Bailey, director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said that’s a problem.

“The bill has not been heard in committee so there’s been no public discussion on how much it costs and whether it’s worth the lost revenue,” Bailey said. “Any amount if we’re not having an open discussion about it is problematic.

The bill failed to land a committee hearing in the Democratic-led House earlier this year. Now the language has been tacked on to a different bill that is already poised to pass the state legislature.

The Courier-Journal reported that Louisville-based Yum! Brands had pushed for the bill earlier in the session and was responsible for its late revival.

Amber Cronen, intake coordinator with the Hope Center in Lexington, said restaurant donations are readily accepted at her organization.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s $3.3 billion bonding bailout of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System won’t pass this session, but a smaller study-and-finance package may still be in the works.

The retirement system only has 53 percent of the money it needs to make future payouts to more than 140,000 retired and active teachers in the state. The state’s required contributions to the system will double by 2026, according to KTRS officials.

On Tuesday, the Senate rejected $3.3 billion in bonding for the retirement system proposed by the House, replacing it with language that would require a committee of lawmakers and experts to identify problems in the pension system and come up with a report on possible solutions by December.

Now a conference committee comprised of representatives and senators will try to come up with a compromise to the two proposals.

Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg said the legislature was in a similar situation in 2013 when lawmakers addressed the cousin of the teacher retirement system—the Kentucky Retirement Systems.

“The Senate kind of wanted reforms but it didn’t want to address the pending issue of financial stability and money,” Stumbo said. “We want to make sure that the fund is financially sound, and we’re willing to listen to some of their suggestions on reforms if they’re willing to do something on the financial stability side.”

In that 2013 session, the legislature required the state to make recommended contributions to the KRS, created a separate pension fund for new hires and limited their benefits. The reforms have been considered successful by some, however KRS still only has 21 percent of the money it needs to make future payouts.

Stumbo said bonding should be included in a solution this year because interest rates are favorable. KTRS officials said the state can borrow money at a 4 percent interest rate and a 7 percent return from its investments in the system.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, hasn’t said if he would consider bonding in a final bill. But he said he’s willing to compromise.

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.

Kentucky LRC

The chair of the state Senate Transportation Committee is still confident that something will be done to adjust Kentucky’s gas tax before the legislative session ends.

But the committee chair, Sen. Ernie Harris, said it’s still unclear what a final bill would look like or where it would come from.

“We’ve been talking about it in leadership and in our caucus. We don’t have a resolution yet, we’re not sure the exact direction that we’re going, but I’m confident that we will address it at some time,” said Harris, a Prospect Republican.

Senate Republicans are discussing not allowing the fuel tax to swing by 5 or 10 percent over the course of a year, Harris said. Currently, the gas tax is based on the average wholesale price of gasoline.

The state’s road fund, which funds maintenance and construction on state highway and bridge projects, has been dwindling because low gas prices have led to fewer tax receipts.

Harris had written a bill that would have set a “floor” to the gas tax—meaning the tax rate would stop adjusting once gas prices fell below a certain amount. That legislation was once a likely contender, but Harris said the legislature will not take it up. He said a final bill will depend on leadership of both chambers working together to decide what bill to advance.

Lawmakers have until 11:59 Wednesday evening to pass bills before the governor’s week-and-a-half long veto session—currently there is no fuel tax bill that has passed both the House and Senate. Lawmakers also have an optional two days to pass bills after the veto session.

If nothing is done to adjust the gas tax, local governments stand to lose up to 40 percent of revenue for routine maintenance of roads, Harris said.

“And that’s not just new asphalt—that is potholes, and after the snows that we’ve had you see the potholes cropping up on fairly new-laid asphalt,” Harris said.

The Kentucky state Senate is poised to pass a bill that would restore funds to several programs associated with the 1998 tobacco settlement.

Revenue from the tobacco settlement has flagged as fewer people have bought cigarettes in the state, leading to shortfalls in programs dealing with agriculture, early childhood, cancer research and programs that help people quit smoking.

“It’s what our revenue’s based on and as that goes down, the divisions to each one of those agencies goes down also,” said Sen. Paul Hornback, a Republican from Shelbyville who sponsored the bill.

The extra money comes from a new settlement the state made with tobacco companies in 2014. Under the agreement, the state received an additional $110 million in fiscal year 2014 and over the next three years will receive $57.2 million more than the state had budgeted to receive from the tobacco settlement.

The bill also ensures that the money from the settlement can only be appropriated by the legislature. Last year Gov. Steve Beshear used the money to restore $42.5 million in budget cuts to lung cancer research, agriculture and other health assistance.

Several Senate Republicans suggested that Beshear’s use of the funds was a breach of power and that budget appropriations should be left to the legislature.

Kentucky LRC

The $3.3 billion bonding bill to bail out the state’s ailing teachers retirement fund is dead.

Senate President Robert Stivers on Tuesday stripped the bonding provision from the bill, saying that more time needed to be spent studying and fixing the system before any money was added to the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System.

“There are systemic changes that need to be made in KTRS before we can make it actuarially sound and viable in perpetuity,” Stivers said during a floor speech on Tuesday.

Now if enacted, the bill would set up a committee of lawmakers and hire an independent think tank to study KTRS’ predicament and potential solutions.

The teacher’s pension system only has 53 percent of the money it needs to make future payouts to about 141,000 retired teachers. Earlier this year, KTRS officials said that if the the bonds isn’t issued, the state’s required contributions to the system will double by 2026.

“I just think we’re kicking the can down the road, we’re at historic low interest rates that are available to us,” said Sen. Dorsey, Ridley, a Henderson Democrat. “I think we’re missing an opportunity.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, was noticeably noncritical of Stivers’ decision to remove bonding from the bill. But he still emphasized the need to take advantage of low interest rates on bonding.

“That’s not a bad plan but we just can’t let it go too long where we lose this opportunity to bond to see if we’re going to use bonds,” Stumbo said.

Local Option Sales Tax

After garnering a two-thirds majority vote in the state House, it looks like the local option sales tax bill isn’t going to even get a committee hearing in the Senate.

The Kentucky legislature is working to keep up with relatively new on-line ride-sharing services. The House Transportation Committee Tuesday approved a Senate measure which impacts the ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber.

The bill's supporters say it serves to protect riders and company drivers by guaranteeing adequate insurance coverage. Oldham County Senator Ernie Harris is sponsoring the bill. "It clears the way for them to continue to operate and be regulated and have a level playing field with regard to insurance requirements," said Harris.

Harris says the measure also seeks to allow for enough flexibility through regulations to keep up with changes in ride-sharing businesses or Transportation Network Companies. "What do you do when an Uber or Lyft driver turns their app on their phone between then and when they actually get to pick up their passenger?" asked Harris. "That has been the sticking point."

Harris says an emergency insurance regulation could be put in place in the next few months. If enacted, the new law would not become effective until mid-July. Harris says transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have typically exceeded state standards for liability insurance coverage.

The state Senate recently approve a bill that would tie higher education funding to Kentucky universities’ ability to produce more and better graduates.

Critics of the present funding model say that schools are funded with an outdated system that doesn’t account for adjustments in enrollment numbers and graduation rates.

“The university system has to be responsive and we can’t keep graduating people, young men and women, that can’t be employed,” said Senate President Robert Stivers during a debate on Wednesday.

Kentucky LRC

This is the last full week of the Kentucky General Assembly’s 2015 session—and just one major piece of legislation has passed both the House and Senate.

Some in Frankfort have high hopes that a few bills will become law in the session’s waning days, including a bill meant to address Kentucky’s growing heroin problem and a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to fund local projects with a temporary sales tax.

At the end of day 21 of a likely 28 day session, here’s where some of the big bills stood:

Heroin

The House and Senate have each passed their own bills that seek to combat Kentucky’s growing heroin problem. Both proposals set aside money for addiction treatment, increase penalties for traffickers and make an overdose-reversing drug called naloxone more available.

Kentucky LRC

Kentucky is one step closer to providing victims of dating violence with the same protections that married victims have.

A Senate committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow people to file an interpersonal protective order against an abusive dating partner. The bill has passed the House and now heads to the full Senate.

Kentucky is the only state that doesn’t offer civil protection to victims of dating violence. Currently only couples who are married, share a child or cohabitate can file protective orders against their partners.

Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat, said the bill can solve problems quickly without entering the criminal justice system.

“More than half of those who enter this system, the violence stops with a civil protected order,” Tilley said. “In other words, criminal sanctions aren’t necessary. Sometimes the victim doesn’t want to go through the criminal justice process.”

Kentucky LRC

The Kentucky House unanimously passed two bills to combat sex trafficking and child pornography in the state.

One bill would prevent those charged with having sex with a child prostitute from claiming they thought the child was over 18. Democratic Representative Sannie Overly says the bill goes along with legislation working its way through the U.S. Congress that amends federal trafficking statutes in the same way.

“It is essentially ‘buyer beware’ and you don’t get to claim later that you didn’t know how old the victim was," Overly said.

The other bill would increase funding for a task force which investigates crimes against children on the internet.

If either bill succeeds, this would be the third year that Kentucky has passed a human trafficking law.

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