Negotiations on heroin bill stall after House conferees reject Senate's sentencing proposal

03/23/2015 07:33 PM

FRANKFORT — Talks on a bill addressing the state’s heroin epidemic have hit familiar a snag after House conferees rejected a potential compromise over the weekend.

Rep. John Tilley, co-chairman of the conference committee on House Bill 4, said lawmakers left Friday’s lengthy closed-door meeting at the Capitol and promised to “sleep on” various ideas discussed in private, but House conferees “couldn’t get there” on the Senate’s proposal for stiffer penalties against heroin traffickers.

Sentencing guidelines for those caught trafficking heroin have proven a major roadblock in brokering a deal between the Senate and House.

The upper chamber had wanted to roll back part of a 2011 criminal justice reform package that mandated those caught trafficking 2 grams or less of heroin face a class D felony, punishable by one to five years in jail, rather than a class C felony, with sentences ranging from five to ten years in prison. Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered a compromise he said would have retained the class D felonies unless authorities find evidence of extensive trafficking, such as baggies, scales and cash.

But increasing heroin trafficking to a class C felony regardless of amount has been a nonstarter for representatives on the conference committee.

“We already have some of the toughest laws in the country as we’ve said,” the Hopkinsville Democrat told reporters after House Democrats caucused Monday, noting the Senate wants stricter penalties for the House’s provisions on needle exchanges and a no-charge Good Samaritan protection for those who report heroin overdoses.

“… We do think there needs to be a distinction between the lowest level dealers and the highest level dealers, and that’s all we’re asking for is to maintain that. Now we’ve met them with even more increased penalties for the higher level dealers and also with a way to tinker with current law to meet some of their concerns, and we’re still not quite there yet.”

Conferees have discussed and debated this year’s version of a heroin bill, Senate Bill 192, for weeks with slow movement toward a resolution.

The latest setback has dampened spirits that, just a few days ago, seemed confident the General Assembly would pass comprehensive heroin legislation in the session’s closing days.

“I’m more defeated than I was on Friday night when I left here,” Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, told reporters after the Senate Republicans caucused. “But not out yet.”

Based on conversations in the caucus meeting, GOP senators “were probably there” on an SB 192 agreement, he said.

“It’s that much more frustrating to see us get that close and not be there yet despite the effort,” Westerfield said.

No additional meetings have been set at this point, but Tilley also remains optimistic lawmakers will settle their differences on far-reaching legislation rather than passing a bill comprised of areas of current agreement.

“We’ve come a long way on some of our discussions with all the conferees together, whether they’ve been our first workgroup or our second more formal conference committee, and so that gives me that optimism going forward,” he said.

The General Assembly has only met 27 of the 30 days in this year’s session, but the legislature is scheduled to adjourn sine die Tuesday, giving lawmakers two unused days they can meet.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said House Democrats discussed the legislative calendar, but only to gauge whether representatives can meet if necessary.

Tilley said he “will stay as long as it takes to pass this.”

“We have several more days in the calendar we could use,” he said. “… And I think the House stands ready to do that if that’s the answer.”


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