Senate sends first two bills to House with contrasting prospects

01/08/2015 07:52 PM

FRANKFORT — The Senate sent one of the General Assembly’s top priorities to the House on Thursday, unanimously passing an anti-heroin bill that would provide various treatment options for addicts and crack down on dealers.

On the heels of Senate Bill 5’s 36-0 passage, the Republican-controlled chamber approved a right-to-work measure that tops the GOP’s legislative wish list. The 24-12 tally fell largely along party lines, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo has said Senate Bill 1 has no chance in the Democrat-led House.

SB 5, sponsored by Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill, would increase penalties against those guilty of trafficking heroin, no matter the amount, by making the crime a Class C felony and mandating at least half of their sentences before they’re eligible for parole.

The bill would also direct saving from penal reforms in 2011 to county jails and community mental health centers for expanded opiate addiction treatment; allow emergency responders to carry Naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of heroin overdoses; and make addicts who report overdoses to first responders eligible for deferred prosecution if they have drugs or paraphernalia in their possession.

“This has been a long process beginning last April, but one of the premises that we adopted early on was to change our thinking from, ‘I won’t support this bill unless it has,’ to, ‘I can support this bill because it has,’” McDaniel, a candidate for lieutenant governor this year, said in a Senate floor speech. “… There are always compromises that have to be made in significant legislation.”

Senators from both parties expressed their support for the bill, but some had slight misgivings on provisions SB 5. Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said she’s concerned that addicts selling small amounts of heroin to feed their habit would be locked away “for a lengthy amount of time and maybe to their further detriment.”

That was a point rebutted by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, who backed stricter penalties for heroin trafficking.

“When I hear people say things like treatment is the total solution to this problem, I have to disagree with them because I live in one of the most affluent areas of this state, and I have personal friends who have spent thousands, over $100,000 on treatment for their loving children who they love so much,” he said. “And they would spend $1 million if they had to and had the means to do it. Guess what? Their children are dead.”

Those same debates will likely flare up in the House, which Stumbo said will present its own version of heroin legislation.

There are representatives who have issues with certain aspects of SB 5, Stumbo said. Some would like to see a needle exchange program in the bill, others want to see stricter criminal penalties, and others prefer lighter sentences.

“It has to go through the legislative gauntlet like everything else,” Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told reporters before the Senate’s vote.

But he unequivocally said the General Assembly would not get bogged down in legislative bickering.

“It’s not going to be derailed,” he said. “We’re going to have a heroin bill.”

Senate President Robert Stivers also hopes political chest-thumping doesn’t lead to the heroin bill’s downfall after watching last year’s offering die in the closing moments of last year’s session.

“I’d say if you asked Chris McDaniel if he’ll just step away from it, he’d probably say, ‘Hey, yeah, look, it’s the issue not the personalities involved,’” Stivers, R-Manchester, said after the vote. “… Why is the House showing so much interest now and why did they wait to the very last minute of the session last year to deal with the issue? That’s what bothers me with this.”

Partisan divide on right-to-work

The Senate sent the politically divisive issue of right-to-work to the House, with all 11 Democrats voting against Senate Bill 1. One Republican, Sen. C.B. Embry of Morgantown, broke rank from his caucus and voted against the bill while another, Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard, was absent.

Under SB 1, employees at unionized workplaces would not be required to pay any union fees if they’re not members. Senate Republicans argued that the measure would be an economic development boon to the state.

If passed, Kentucky would be the 25th state with such legislation.

While Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said it’s not the government’s role to create employment opportunities, “it is the job of government to create an environment where jobs can flourish.”

“There is no question in my mind that the passage of Senate Bill 1 is the absolute best step that this General Assembly and governor can take to create a better environment for the creation or retention of jobs here in the commonwealth,” said Thayer, R-Georgetown.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, said the bill would only weaken labor unions and lead to lower wages for employees.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones said no one can be forced to join a union under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, but the employee must pay a proportional share of their representation if he or she benefits from wages and benefits negotiated by a labor group.

The term right-to-work, he said, “has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with anybody having an ability to get a job or not get a job.”

“What this really is all about is one thing,” said Jones, D-Pikeville. “You know, this is the age-old issue of labor versus management, but it’s been boiled down to the simple fact that historically labor unions support Democrats, and this is nothing more than an effort to weaken unions as a way to defund Democratic candidates.”


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