Get a crash cart, stat: Status update on bills heading into lawmakers' last full week of work

03/01/2015 03:00 PM

Only a fraction of the 757 bills filed in this year’s short session have a shot to become law as legislators enter their final full week of work.

The House and Senate have sent a combined 189 pieces of legislation to the other chamber thus far, but only one item, a resolution adjourning the first part of the session in January and convening the second in February, has cleared both chambers.

That will change this week with a few bills, such as those approving bond sales for a new research facility at the University of Kentucky and deregulating landline telephone service, poised to hit Gov. Steve Beshear’s desk while others are bartered either in conference committee or behind closed doors.

As legislators stitch together compromises ahead of adjourning since die March 24, here’s a glance at the health of some high-profile bills.

Stable and nearing discharge

A handful of bills have bright prognoses as the session nears its end.

The Senate is poised to vote on bills authorizing the sale of $132.5 million in bonds to finance a new research center at UK and, on Monday, deregulating landline telephone service. A House bill allowing the state to contract with private entities in capital and infrastructure projects came to the Senate without a tolling amendment that caused its veto last year.

But much of the attention will focus on negotiations between the chambers as they cobble together legislation addressing the state’s growing heroin problem. Rep. John Tilley, sponsor of House Bill 213, said talks were slated to continue late Friday and Monday ahead of a probable conference committee.

The primary differences between HB 213 and Senate Bill 5 were laid bare in committee hearings last week, but both Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said those debates were beneficial as lawmakers continue working toward a resolution.

“There are problems that you can find in (HB) 213 and I know that you could make some changes to Senate Bill 5,” Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said in an interview with Pure Politics Friday. “Already they’re both compromises on things. We just need to find some room in the middle, and that’s the conversation that we’re going to have.”

Much of the committee testimony centered on HB 213’s tiered approach to prosecuting heroin traffickers, keeping sales of 2 grams or less class D felonies while creating a new class B felony for those caught selling a kilogram or more, versus SB 5, which makes all heroin trafficking a class C felony.

The bills further differ in funding for heroin treatment, with SB 5 directing slightly more money from 2011 penal reform savings to jails than community mental health centers and HB 213 sending much of the savings for external treatment services, and their Good Samaritan provisions, as SB 5 offers deferred prosecution for those who call 911 during heroin overdoses and HB 213 grants immunity from prosecution for possession and paraphernalia charges in those instances.

HB 213 also allows health departments to open local-option needle exchanges, a piece Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, initially said he could abandon to pass a bill this year.

But as hearings have yielded only a handful of concerns, the House Judiciary Committee chairman told Pure Politics he plans to continue his push for the exchanges.

The House’s unanimous vote on the bill, despite a push to cut the needle-exchange provision in a floor amendment, and the robust debate on the topic have buoyed his hopes that enough senators will support the idea.

“If the ultimate goal is to save lives and we agree that this is a public-health crisis, then that is an appropriate and responsible solution to a public-health crisis on so many fronts,” Tilley said, noting the exchanges are expected to curb the spread of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C and HIV.

“… We’ll have to look at where the Senate and House leadership both are on that issue, but at this point our workgroup through enough of it, putting it on the table and saying can we live without it? Our workgroup and I think the members in the House who worked on it in a bipartisan way said no.”

Westerfield said he expects the final bill to look more like SB 5 in the end, although he likes elements of HB 213.

He agrees with the concept of HB 213’s tiered approach to convicting heroin traffickers, although he prefers giving prosecutors more discretion in pursuing such cases.

“Otherwise at 2 grams you may catch somebody that you didn’t intend at the lower level or higher level, or you might miss someone that you aimed to get and that the system would hope to get,” Westerfield said. “So we’re going to look at that, and I certainly see the value in treating the person with one hit of heroin differently from the person that’s trafficking in a truckload.”

Conferees will also look at lowering the kilogram threshold because those cases are more likely handled by federal prosecutors, and treatment funding “is going to be a little hairy,” he added.

Still, both agreed the two sides are closer than ever to a resolution. The biggest hangup, Westerfield said, “might very well be whose name goes on it or what number it is.”

“I think what we saw this week in hearing the Senate bill in the House committee and the House bill in the Senate committee was real progress,” Tilley said. “I think it was significant progress and a coming together on many issues. We’re still not there, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get in a room and finish everything out.”

Intensive care

Some pieces of legislation still require a bit of work, and even then their futures are uncertain.

This year the House’s top priority bill, a constitutional amendment allowing local-option sales taxes on specific projects, has been stymied in the Senate due to concerns with the enabling legislation.

Senate President Robert Stivers said he and others support the constitutional amendment, which would go on the ballot in 2016, but are worried about “a perceived utility tax that would be very tough on industrial consumers.”

“But I understand from proponents that that could be drafted out,” Stivers, R-Manchester, told reporters Friday. “… As this continues to get scrutiny, there still tends to be a lot of questions.”

The state’s declining gas tax receipts could also be addressed by a conference committee, even though neither chamber has passed a bill on the issue.

Sen. Ernie Harris introduced a bill to raise the floor of the average wholesale price of gasoline, on which the state’s gas tax is set, to its level Jan. 1. That would essentially maintain the current rate ahead of an expected 5.1-cent drop in the gas tax April 1 and a more than 30 percent decline in funds directed to local governments for routine maintenance, he said.

Lawmakers have argued over which chamber should take up the gas tax proposal first, but Harris, a Prospect Republican and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, called resolving the matter this session “critical” to protect the road fund.

He expects a conference committee will take up the declining gas tax rate before the General Assembly adjourns this year.

“I’m confident that we will deal with it at some time in some way,” Harris said. “I’m just not sure how it’s going to happen yet.”

House Democrats and Beshear proposed a solution during last year’s budget-writing session, offering to raise the floor of the gas tax.

Republicans balked at the proposal and even used the proposal with minimal success in last year’s election cycle, but something similar may reemerge this year as legislators take up shrinking gas tax receipts in conference committee, said Rep. Rick Rand, chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

Rand, D-Bedford, said the onus will be on the Senate in developing a plan that can clear both chambers, adding that the House “can get behind whatever the Senate can pass.”

“If it came down to a conference-type thing where there’s a negotiation, I wouldn’t want to go into that with any sort of predetermined lines drawn in the sand,” he said. “It would be something that, you know, I’d be willing to look at and talk about and figure out what we could do together.”

“Paging Dr. Kevorkian”

A few bills have already met Death’s sickle. Senate bills on right-to-work and excluding public school construction projects from prevailing wage laws were voted down in a House committee while a House bill banning smoking indoors in public places was sent to a Senate committee where it may die without a hearing.

Many refrain from outright declaring a piece of legislation dead until lawmakers adjourn sine die, but prospects are exceedingly dim for bills that haven’t been heard once by a committee.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s pitch for $3.3 billion in bonds to shore up the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System also faces a grim outlook. Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said the plan will take advantage of low interest rates and give the state an eight-year window to implement a long-term funding strategy.

Stivers said the Senate will likely push to study the pension system further during this year’s interim and recommend systemic changes to put KTRS on better footing, similar to the process the legislature followed in enacting reforms for the Kentucky Retirement Systems in 2013.

“It’s not a good policy to borrow money to get yourself out of one debt to place yourself in debt to another group,” he said, noting he hopes to keep the system sound “in perpetuity.”

Pure Politics reporter Don Weber contributed to this report.


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