Talks on heroin bills show glimpses of progress as veto recess, sine die loom

03/06/2015 10:22 PM

Music — often a subject of debate in long-distance car rides — never came up as Rep. John Tilley and Sen. Whitney Westerfield drove three and a half hours from Frankfort to Hopkinsville Friday.

The chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committee talked about a number of bills that remain unresolved as lawmakers prepare to break for a 10-day veto recess starting Thursday, but their conversation frequently turned to a topic many deem critical: addressing the state’s burgeoning heroin problem.

“I can honestly say at no time did we even turn (the radio) on we had so much discussion,” Tilley said of the lengthy commute to Hopkinsville, an extension of ongoing negotiations between the House and Senate as they craft legislation on the drug problem that’s particularly acute in northern Kentucky.

The two chambers have passed their visions of a solution and heard the other side’s in committee hearings, but there’s no sign of legislative movement on either Senate Bill 5 or House Bill 213.

Behind the scenes, however, there’s been progress.

The two have met in working groups, including late Wednesday as snow began to blanket the capital city, and Westerfield said he and Sens. Chris McDaniel and Wil Schroder updated Senate Republicans on talks in a caucus meeting Friday.

At this point neither side has given firm commitments as they negotiate policy differences, Westerfield said, noting he expects informal polling within the GOP ranks on various proposals throughout the weekend.

“I can’t speak for my caucus on where we are and I don’t think John can for his caucus either, but the conversations have been very good,” he said. “… The picture will start coming together about whether or not there’s a will in my caucus to compromise on this policy or that, and I’ll communicate that to John. He and I have open communications.”

Negotiations have centered on four main points, Westerfield said: enforcement, treatment, HB 213’s proposed needle exchanges and the “Good Samaritan” provisions in both bills. Other peripheral issues will also require some ironing, such as HB 213’s extension of naloxone access beyond emergency responders and its inclusion of neonatal care treatment, he and Tilley said.

Tilley, sponsor of HB 213, briefed House Democrats Wednesday and hoped to again this week, but a snowstorm that dropped 3 feet in some parts of the state shuttered the General Assembly Thursday and Friday.

Although logistically crippled from a legislative standpoint, the time off gave lawmakers time to sit down, get others up to speed and pore over the differences between SB 5 and HB 213, Tilley said.

Still, he and Westerfield were unsure whether a resolution could be reached in time for the veto recess.

“It wouldn’t be devastating, I don’t think,” Tilley said. “I know there would be some gnashing of teeth and some criticism if we don’t, and I would one of those to be critical.

“However, and again our goal, I think I can speak for my co-chair in the sense that we’d like to have something before we leave for the veto recess, but I don’t think we’re subject to, I don’t think there’s any risk of a heroin bill being vetoed if it represents a consensus of the House and Senate.”

McDaniel, sponsor of SB 5, is optimistic a deal will be brokered, yet frustrated at the delay in crafting a response to the heroin problem. He called the prospects of returning from a veto recess, whipping votes and passing a compromise within 48 hours “unacceptable.”

The Taylor Mill Republican noted SB 5 went to the House in the session’s opening week in January and only recently received an informational committee hearing.

“I think we’ve had ample time to hammer it out,” McDaniel said. “The fact is we sent our heroin bill over to the House in the beginning of January, and they didn’t indicate any willingness to discuss it with us until less than two weeks ago. … We really need to be getting this done this week.”

The vehicle bill for such a compromise has also become a stumbling point, and both SB 5 and HB 213 have gained significance in their respective chambers for different reasons.

SB 5, carried by retired Sen. Katie Stine of Southgate, nearly crossed the finish line last year, but the clock struck midnight April 15 before the House called for a vote on the bill. HB 213 is numbered after the Feb. 13 birthday of Wes Jenkins, the late nephew of Rep. Joni Jenkins who suffered a fatal heroin overdose in 2013. The bill also cleared the House on a unanimous vote Feb. 13.

Tilley said the decision on which bill to move is “above my pay grade.”

“I’m certainly not claiming ownership as my name is on House Bill 213,” he said. “I know there’s some emotion to 213 and my working group, and the caucus has become connected to this idea as a way to honor a colleague’s nephew that passed away.

“… And I know in the Senate, certainly they have worked on this issue and there’s a connection there as well. In discussions with a number of northern Kentucky senators I understand that.”

McDaniel entered this session with the belief that SB 5 would be the vehicle for the legislature’s heroin bill based on a meeting among Gov. Steve Beshear, Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo before the General Assembly convened.

A GOP candidate for lieutenant governor on a ticket with state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, McDaniel dismissed the notion that politics could be a factor in deciding which bill to send Beshear.

Addressing the heroin problem, he said, is “way bigger than anybody running for lieutenant governor.”

“One of the agreements was that we would try to advance (SB) 5 as the vehicle,” McDaniel said of his understanding of the pre-session meeting. “I mean, it’s been the priority of the Senate for three years now, and obviously Senate Bill 5 last year was the Senate’s heroin bill and the Senate’s heroin bill this year and it’s a policy the Senate’s been trying to advance for a long time.”


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