Conference committee on heroin bill will consider reopening the budget for $10M treatment provisions

03/12/2015 05:15 AM

After weeks of informal discussions on how to address Kentucky’s heroin epidemic, the state Senate and House formed a conference committee on Wednesday in hopes of overcoming policy divides and drafting a compromise before adjourning sine die March 24.

The group will have a new provision to consider as the House amended Senate Bill 192, the anti-heroin legislation, to include $10 million in the next fiscal year for a variety of treatment options, such as funding for community mental health centers, neonatal abstinence syndrome and antagonists like Vivitrol, which blocks opioid receptors to curb heroin cravings for up to four weeks.

House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sannie Overly said the appropriations reflect parts of SB 192 funded in the next biennium through savings from 2011 penal reforms.

“The only change would be to advance treatment so that we can start to help Kentuckians save lives now,” Overly, D-Paris, said before the House passed Senate Bill 192 98-0.

Rep. John Tilley said Gov. Steve Beshear has identified $10 million in the budget that can fund treatment options, and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said those figures would be released soon.

He doesn’t expect the Senate to be caught off-guard by the proposal to reopen the current budget.

Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said he has privately pushed for immediate aid to treatment programs and tools. He broke his public silence on the topic during a judiciary hearing on SB 192 Tuesday.

The state’s heroin problem “can’t wait,” he told reporters after the House adjourned.

“I’ve said several times during the workgroups I think we need to find some money and I would hope our leaders could do that,” he said, adding his belief that the $10 million proposal will be “well received” by the Senate. “I did not say that publicly. I didn’t think that was fair.”

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he doesn’t question how SB 192 proposes to distribute the $10 million after speaking with Tilley and Overly, but he and other senators involved in talks thus far want to know the funding source.

One of the major spending proposals — $1.3 million for neonatal abstinence syndrome — would go hand-in-hand with a bill he’s sponsoring that would improve treatment access for pregnant women.

“I think that’s a very worthy place to spend some money,” said Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville. “I just want to make sure we’ve actually got it.”

“… Is this actual, real money that we’ve got sitting in a pot somewhere and in an account somewhere that we can spend, or is it sort of ephemeral, it might be there, it might be savings or we’re finding, we’re estimating it here? I’d be more excited about it if I knew there were $10 million sitting in a bank that we can spend for sure.”

Reopening the budget has precedence this session, Tilley said.

Beshear signed House Bill 298 this week, authorizing $132.5 million in bonds for a multifaceted research facility at the University of Kentucky, and lawmakers gave final passage to House Bill 340 Wednesday, which extends film tax credits and will cost next fiscal year’s budget an estimated $5.5 million.

“We will have some information on exactly where the money’s coming from,” Tilley said. “It’s not funny money. It’s money we know. They’re hard dollars.”

In an unexpected move, Senate President Robert Stivers was named co-chairman of the conference committee for SB 192.

Tilley, speaking before Senate conferees were appointed, assumed Westerfield would head the upper chamber’s conference committee. The two have already talked about setting meeting dates with judiciary committee staff, although Westerfield joked that Stivers’ schedule “will actually be the one that’s toughest to coordinate with.”

Stivers, R-Manchester, and Tilley have worked together as co-chairmen of the legislature’s judiciary committee and with others on major drug policy like 2012’s House Bill 1, which cracked down on so-called pill mills and strengthened prescription monitoring.

Stivers said he was chosen to co-chair the panel based on the time he’s invested in the heroin issue as well as his experience in the courtroom and chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I am — well, I don’t want to say I am now — I used to be a practicing lawyer who has done much in the criminal realm and understands that individuals who when you set limits are shrewd enough to know that as long as they do something under 2 grams they can’t be charged with a felony, so they’ll have 1 gram,” he told reporters.

Sentencing guidelines represent one of the largest remaining obstacles between the two sides.

Senators have said they want stiffer penalties against heroin dealers as drafted in Senate Bill 5, which made heroin trafficking a class C felony and mandated those convicted serve at least half their sentence before release. The House, meanwhile, unanimously voted on a version of SB 192 that retained the 2-gram threshold for class D felonies and created a third tier of penalties for those selling a kilogram or more of the drug.

The House’s proposed local-option needle exchanges and the chambers’ Good Samaritan provisions have also prevented an agreement, but both sides say the legislature will pass a bill addressing the state’s heroin epidemic this session.

“I feel comfortable in the position we’re in,” Stivers said.

Tilley said he believes the two sides will ultimately reach a compromise, but “having said that, there are some points on which we still need some work.”

Conferees on SB 192

  • Stivers, co-chairman
  • Tilley, co-chairman
  • Rep. Denny Butler, D-Louisville
  • Rep. Ron Crimm, R-Louisville
  • Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville
  • Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown
  • Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively
  • Rep. Dennis Keene, D-Wilder
  • Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill
  • Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville
  • Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder
  • Westerfield

Pure Politics reporter Don Weber contributed to this report.


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