FRANKFORT, Ky. – The Kentucky General Assembly will reach the midway point of the 2015 legislative session this week with more than 650 bills — and key issues like heroin abuse — hanging in the balance.
Senate Republicans have advanced nearly all their priority bills, including legislation to create medical review panels, clear the way for charter schools and increase requirements before women can receive abortions.
The Democratic-led House has likewise pushed through bills to allow local-option sales taxes, of keen interest in Louisville; raise Kentucky’s minimum wage; and protect victims of dating violence.
So far, the effort with the most bipartisan zeal is legislation to fight heroin, a drug claiming hundreds of lives in Kentucky every year.
“The House has really a good bill, and the Senate has a good bill,” said Russ Read, co-founder of the Metro Louisville Heroin Reduction Task Force. “What we really need to have happen is they get together and create a great bill.”
Legislators involved in the issue indicated Friday that talks between the two chambers on a possible accord could begin this week.
Read said families are watching closely and advocates are encouraging them to call legislators as negotiations advance. He said he hopes lawmakers put politics aside and remember that “the real purpose for this legislation is to save lives.”
Lawmakers — who were off Monday for Presidents Day and Tuesday for snow — are expected to return Wednesday for the 14th day of the 30-day session. The state constitution calls for them to adjourn no later than March 30.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he doesn’t yet have a good feeling on which bills have a strong chance of reaching the governor’s desk this year.
He said he hopes the two chambers can come to agreement on heroin, dating violence and a bill to reform regulations on telecommunication companies. But he warned that differences persist on those issues.
“I remain hopeful,” Thayer said. “The next couple of weeks remain critical obviously — not a lot of time left.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he is still confident that the legislature will produce a “very workable” heroin bill and a measure to address dating violence.
He said the telecommunications legislation — often called the AT&T bill — will likely get a vote on the House floor but that more Democrats are raising questions.
The bill, which has already passed out of House committee, would deregulate landline telephone services and allow carriers like AT&T to drop basic service to customers in urban areas.
AT&T says those changes would allow the company to invest more in broadband, cellular and other more modern technology. The Senate also has a version of the measure.
Democratic Rep. Rick Rand, who is sponsoring the House bill, said he expects the focus of the legislation to remain intact despite nine amendments proposed on the House floor.
But Stumbo, a critic, said there are no guarantees that the bill will spur investment and “as the days grow longer, the votes grow shorter.”
On heroin, the House and Senate still must resolve different approaches to funding treatment, granting legal breaks to people who report overdoses and penalizing drug dealers.
The Senate’s version would make selling any amount of heroin a Class C felony and require convicted drug dealers to serve at least half their prison sentences.
House legislation targets traffickers who sell a kilogram or more. They could be charged with a Class B felony under the House bill and receive prison sentences of up to 20 years.
Under current law, selling two grams or more of heroin triggers a Class C, while anything less is a Class D felony.
Read said he remains optimistic despite the differences.
“They are so close right now, other than the penalty part of it, that I think there is going to have to be a compromise,” he said.
Reporter Mike Wynn can be reached at (502) 875-5136. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeWynn_CJ.