As the organizational dust settles, House Democrats prep to push priorities in February

01/11/2015 06:00 PM

FRANKFORT — With leadership elections and committee assignments behind them, the Kentucky House of Representatives can begin its legislative work when the General Assembly reconvenes Feb. 3.

The most pressing issue — and a subject in Gov. Steve Beshear’s State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday and a floor speech by Senate President Robert Stivers Friday — is passing a bill to combat heroin abuse. The Senate sent its version, Senate Bill 5, to the House on a unanimous vote Thursday.

“The Senate bill’s not that bad, I don’t think,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Friday. “We’re going to have a heroin bill. It’s just a matter of what happens to some tweaking with it over here.”

Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the House’s heroin bill will be filed in the first week lawmakers return to the Capitol.

The Hopkinsville Democrat is optimistic the House version can pass both chambers with one likely difference with SB 5: a threshold to differentiate high-volume traffickers from addicts selling the drug to feed their habit, a key distinction made in a 2011 penal reform package.

“We’re very close on where we need to go, but I think there’s a big sticking point right now, and it’s that we distinguish between what we consider low-level peddlers who are selling very small amounts,” Tilley told Pure Politics Friday, noting that selling any amount of heroin will be a felony. “The 2-gram limit is about two Sweet’N Low packets worth of heroin, and to treat them the same as somebody who brings in a boatload heroin, to me, is not equitable and that’s not what our justice system should be about.”

He added later: “When you say just intent to distribute the smallest amount, again, you’re creating a Class C felony and you’re ensnaring the very people that are suffering. The same people who are suffering could very well be charged with a Class C felony and face 10 years in prison for what some are also saying those same people need treatment as opposed to just incarceration.”

Tilley is a proponent for local needle-exchange programs, with communities choosing whether to allow their health departments to set up such projects.

The controversial provision didn’t sink last session’s heroin bill, Tilley said. It could be included in the House bill, but Tilley is confident the House “can possibly address this by a standalone bill” if not.

“There are, again, some who were against it last year who have researched it now and are for it, and so it remains in the discussion,” he said. “But to say that it would bring down the entire effort I will say no.”

Watch Tilley’s reasons for the needle-exchange program here:

SB 5 is sponsored by Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Taylor Mill Republican and running mate of gubernatorial candidate James Comer, and Tilley said he has “no desire to engage in politics with this bill.”

More from House agenda

Tilley spoke with Pure Politics on his way to a meeting with Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to discuss a dating violence bill.

That’s one of the bills Stumbo mentioned when he laid out the House’s legislative agenda once the General Assembly reconvenes in February.

“We’re going to start moving on things like minimum wage, which is part of the House agenda,” Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said before gaveling in the House Friday. “Domestic violence should be ready to go by that time.”

He also expects committee hearings on legislation to fund teachers’ pensions, legalize medicinal marijuana and implement a statewide smoking ban.

Stumbo filed House Bill 4, a proposal to inject $3.3 billion from bond sales into the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, on Friday. KTRS officials, petitioning for the bonds during the interim, said bonds are necessary to maintain the fund’s long-term stability and will allow the state to develop a financing plan.

HB 4’s $3.3 billion value is the highest bonding plan presented by KTRS, but Stumbo said that’s only a starting point and “subject to debate.” He believes the plan is feasible thanks to low market rates.

When asked if $3.3 billion could get enough support to attain a supermajority in the House, Stumbo said, “I think at some level yes. Do I know if it’s three point three? No, we haven’t gone through that exercise yet.”

There’s nothing in the works to fund the beleaguered Kentucky Retirement Systems, which faces $17.8 billion in unfunded liabilities, Stumbo said, but the legislature’s increased attention to the state’s pension agencies in recent years will help KRS.

“The General Assembly’s not going to let those funds go broke,” he said.

Scheduling changes ahead

With the GOP-led Senate’s swift action on its legislative agenda in the session’s first four days, Stumbo and House leaders will probably schedule their leadership elections during new member orientation in early December 2016 so they can get a fast start on legislative work in the next odd-year session.

“We’ve talked about that, and I think that’s likely to happen,” Stumbo said. “… That way those leadership elections will have been made and we’ll be better able, then, when we get here, when the House gets here to have committee assignments in place and start moving quicker.”

The House, with Democrats holding a 54-46 majority, assigned committees Friday after electing caucus leaders, swearing in those leaders and hearing interim committee reports. By that point, the Senate passed priority legislation on heroin, right-to-work, administrative regulations and informed consent, particularly before abortions.

As the House gets started on its priority bills, the Senate will roll out and act on the second half of the top 10 bills in its legislative agenda, according to Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer.

“I am proud, Mr. President, that this body is prepared to work and looking forward to us getting underway here momentarily,” Thayer, R-Georgetown, said in a floor speech Thursday.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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