Politics

State lawmakers worked into the early hours Wednesday to pass a series of bills before the Kentucky legislative session draws to a close.

Lawmakers passed a comprehensive bill to address the state’s growing heroin problem, set a floor to the tumbling gas tax and extended protections domestic violence victims.

Legislators blew past a midnight deadline as the two chambers went back and forth on the final passage of bills. House and Senate leaders said they were allowed to go late because the legislature had missed two days earlier in the session due to snow.

Each legislative day is estimated to cost the state about $60,000.

Heroin

After months of debate, the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate struck a compromise.

The bill includes stiffer penalties for drug traffickers as well as a local option for needle exchanges, $10 million for drug treatment programs, and increased availability of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and the addiction-inhibiting drug vivatrol.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican, praised the bill’s heavy penalties for traffickers who bring heroin into the state.

“We do have increased penalties, not as increased as some would like but increased nonetheless and for importantly the ones that deserve it,” Westerfield said.

The bill also contains several “advancers” for low-level drug dealers that would amplify charges if individuals are caught with scales, weapons, or excess cash.

Sen. Paul Hornback, a Shelbybille Republican, said the penalty provisions in the bill were weak, with too much of a focus on shuttling addicts into drug rehabilitation.

“Forced rehab does not usually work and we’re talking about forced rehab here,” Hornback said, while also taking issue with a provision that allows local health districts to set up needle exchanges. “You give them free needles in this needle exchange program we have in this bill. That’s enabling somebody.”

Gas Tax

The state Senate passed a gas tax freeze, though legislation hadn’t been publicly presented or debated in over a month.

The gas tax has tumbled as gas prices have fallen in the last year, leading to less money for the state’s road fund.

Lawmakers voted to set the minimum rate for the gas tax at 26 cents per gallon. The gas tax, presently at 27 cents per gallon, is set to dip down to just over 22 cents per gallon next week.

Kentucky transportation officials argued the freeze will save the state millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican, said that transportation officials created a false crisis in order to get more money for their road fund.

“Everyone acts like potholes won’t be filled, roads won’t be resurfaced and new roads won’t be built. That’s ridiculous,” Thayer said.

In a floor debate, Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones, a Pikeville Democrat, accused Thayer of having an “unreasonable position.”

“I have never seen anybody that doesn’t want better roads in their community,” Jones said. “You can’t build those roads and you can’t maintain those roads without a stable revenue stream.”

Dating Violence

After weeks of no movement, the state Senate swiftly passed a bill that would allow victims of dating violence to have protective orders placed on abusive partners.

Kentucky is the last state in the U.S. to provide such civil protections.

Currently only married couples, couples that live together or share a child, can levy protective orders. Sen. Westerfield said dating violence victims in Kentucky rely on the slow-moving criminal justice system.

“It takes weeks to get started, months to get off the ground, a year or more to finish,” Westerfield said. “Meanwhile that immediacy, the immediate protection that comes with a protective order does not exist unless you’re one of those three groups.”

Teachers’ Pensions

The legislature failed to produce a bill to deal with the state’s ailing teachers’ pension system.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, had proposed authorizing $3.3 billion in bonds to shore up the system, which boasts only 53 percent of the money it needs to make future payments to retirees.

Members of the House and Senate were weighing a compromise to bond less money and further study the system’s problems. But by Tuesday evening, the deal fell through.

Sen. Joe Bowen, an Owensboro Republican, said the state’s credit rating couldn’t afford take on that much bonding.

“Most people that I talk to don’t think that it’s good public policy to borrow money to pay a debt,” Bowen said.

Kentucky is contractually required to make payments to its pension holders. Bowen says the system has enough money to make payments in the near future.

“This isn’t an immediate crisis, this is a crisis that needs to be addressed in a measured way to make sure that we don’t incur more risk, to make sure we don’t make the situation worse,” Bowen said.

Because of the snow days, state lawmakers may choose to take up some additional proposals Wednesday.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.