"Fruitful" closed-door meeting boosts lawmakers' confidence on heroin resolution

03/20/2015 10:22 PM

FRANKFORT — Lawmakers hoping to reach a compromise on anti-heroin legislation went behind closed doors Friday after a tense debate on how to punish traffickers.

They emerged more than three and a half hours later without an agreement, but the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees left the meeting in high spirits after “fruitful” discussions.

Rep. John Tilley and Sen. Whitney Westerfield said they plan to brief their caucuses on progress from the private conference committee meeting over the weekend and on Monday. The pair declined to discuss any potential compromises reached in the closed-door meeting.

“I dare say it’s been the most fruitful day of discussion we’ve had,” said Tilley, D-Hopkinsville. “To answer your question, we don’t have an agreement in place. We’re still continuing our discussions, but we hope to have more to report on Monday.”

Some on the committee, such as co-chairman Senate President Robert Stivers, suggested legislators could simply pass a version of Senate Bill 192 with provisions to which they can agree, such as one expanding access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, before returning to address other differences in a later session.

While that remains a possibility, “I don’t know that at this point it feels as likely as it did 24 hours ago,” Tilley said, noting the committee discussed the bill “in totality” and considered both familiar and new ideas behind closed doors.

Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, also told reporters to “talk to us on Monday” when asked whether the meeting featured a watershed moment toward a resolution.

“I’m not prepared to say that it is, but I’m not prepared to say that it isn’t,” he said.

The conference committee on SB 192 reiterated their differences in open session, originally hoping to delve into the chambers’ Good Samaritan protections and the House’s proposed local-option needle exchanges before quickly turning back to the focus of Thursday’s meeting: penalties for those caught dealing heroin.

The Senate originally proposed raising penalties on heroin trafficking to class C felonies while the House’s version of SB 192 retains the class D felony for selling 2 grams or less of heroin, set during criminal justice reforms in 2011, and creating a new tier of class B felonies for those caught dealing a kilogram or more.

Westerfield offered a compromise that would keep the class D level of heroin trafficking unless authorities find paraphernalia such as baggies, cash and scales.

But during the open meeting, lawmakers appeared resolute in their original positions.

“Why are we walking away from the dozens and dozens and dozens of commonwealth’s attorneys who have said we need stiffer low-end penalties?” Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, asked at one point.

Tilley took offense to the suggestion.

“I’m not walking away from any particular group,” he said. “They’re not the only stakeholder in this process. I’m a former prosecutor. I have tremendous respect for prosecutors. I spent my time in the trenches.”

He and others among the House conferees argued that no evidence shows tougher trafficking penalties curb heroin abuse or sales.

The two sides also differ on how to pay for treatment options, with the House proposing $10 million in the next fiscal year for neonatal abstinence syndrome and other provisions while the Senate originally directed funds in the next budget cycle from penal reform savings to jails and community health centers.

Identifying the funding source has been a key point for senators, and Tilley said he’s confident a budget surplus will cover the $10 million proposal.

“We continue to talk about where that needs to go, and we’ve had fruitful discussion, again, on those areas,” he said after the meeting. “I think we all agree those areas are all important. We may not appropriate specific amounts, but we may leave some flexibility in there for the administration to appropriate money to those areas.”

Westerfield said he’ll know if his concerns on the funding source are satisfied by Monday.

“We don’t have anything ironed down in stone on a number of different provisions, and I won’t know exactly where we are until we’ve had a chance to talk with our caucuses,” he said.

While some suggested compromising and resolving other differences later, others urged the committee to thoroughly address Kentucky’s heroin epidemic while they’re at the negotiating table.

Rep. Ron Crimm, R-Louisville, said if lawmakers fail to come away with a resolution before the session concludes Tuesday, “the people of this commonwealth lose.”

“We need to come out of here with something that shows the people of Kentucky that we’ve done a job for them,” he said during the open meeting.


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