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Late Night General Assembly Session Yields Few Major Bills

Josh James

The final business day of the 2015 session before the 10-day recess brought a flurry of activity to the Kentucky Capitol Wednesday, but several key pieces of legislation will have to wait until the chambers reconvene later this month.

Think of it as a late night cram session.

Only instead of feverishly poring over dog-eared textbooks, lawmakers are tinkering with dozens of bills – gutting some, combining others, and sometimes adding amendments with only tenuous connections to the original. All in a rush to beat the deadline before the governor can exercise his veto pen.

Two much-touted bills that won't be landing on Gov. Beshear’s desk this week are measures combating heroin and expanding domestic violence protections to dating couples. But House Speaker Greg Stumbo is sticking to his refrain that they’re on the way.

"There are going to be some accomplishments. Those have been stumbling blocks in past sessions and they're finally going to be addressed. And obviously some would say why don't you address them all, well, it's the legislative process," he told reporters. 

A reformulated heroin vehicle approved by the House is now destined for a conference committee, which will include Sen. President Robert Stivers. One new addition to the bill is an extra $10M for treatment tacked on by Rep. Sannie Overly.

Meanwhile, a number of smaller bills will head to the governor – including Breeder’s Cup incentives, a measure providing snow day relief for school districts hit hard by winter weather, and a ban on internet café sweepstakes. Despite the lack of agreement on the session’s marquee legislation, Sen. President Robert Stivers sounds optimistic much can be resolved over the break.

"I don't hear any comments from the House about turkey vultures swarming or anything like that, so I believe the channels of dialogue are good," he said.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
In a darkened Capitol Wednesday night, lights remain on in the Senate as work continues

Among the bills declared dead or on life support this session: legislation opening up more public-private partnerships, the statewide smoking ban, and the local options sales tax effort championed by Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, which would have enabled communities to fund big ticket projects through temporary sales tax increases. All measures stalled in the Senate.

Following the veto break, lawmakers will have just two days to take up their remaining business.

Heroin On Hold

A compromise heroin bill bounced back and forth between the House and Senate Wednesday night, finally landing in conference committee. While the chambers appear to be inching closer on the sticking points, lawmakers won’t be voting on a final agreement until they return.

Still, Senate President Robert Stivers maintained a lot can be accomplished in the interim.

"I think the discussions when we come back... everything would be resolved by that time because when we get in on the 23rd and 24th, I think the die will be cast and hopefully everything would be prepared. I would be hopeful that maybe we could leave on the 23rd and not even have to use the 24th," Stivers said.

Senate Republicans want increased penalties for traffickers across the board, but House Democrats are holding out for a tiered system that reserves harsher sentences for more aggressive dealers. Differences also remain over opt-in needle exchange programs included in the House language.

Rep. John Tilley says lawmakers might continue negotiations over the phone or in person during the gubernatorial veto break.

Snow Day Reprieve

1,062 hours - that’s how long Kentucky students are legally required to receive instruction during the school year. But once again, with snow days piling up, lawmakers have been forced to provide exemptions for schools that can’t guarantee that number without pushing classes well into summer vacation.

Wednesday night, both chambers agreed to an amended measure allowing districts to waive some of those hours if they can’t make up for the snow days by June 5. While applauding a new provision mandating that schools submit plans for making up the lost hours, Louisville Rep. Jim Wayne argued Kentucky can’t afford to keep giving away school days.

"If we continue to do this, we continue to fall behind both nationally and internationally," he argued on the House floor. "We can't do that anymore, folks. We need to actually strengthen our school system and add instructional hours to the current requirements."

Repeated rounds of heavy snow and ice have left some school districts close to a month behind.

Gas Tax MIA

Despite positive sounds from Senate Transportation Committee chair Ernie Harris, the proposed gas tax bill was a no-show Wednesday night. With prices slumping at the pump, Kentucky’s gas tax – the funding source for the state’s road projects – is in danger of drying up.

Under consideration is a measure stopping the tax from fluctuating by five to ten percent, but with time running out it could be next January before the lawmakers addresses the issue.

Asked if he anticipated a special session to deal with the gas tax, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said projections show the state could afford to fund Gov. Beshear’s priority projects through 2015, but "the real problem hits in the next administration with probably about $300 million dollars or more in a loss of revenues to the road fund, so it would devastate the six year road plan after the construction period of this next summer."

Minus action by the General Assembly, local governments could suffer a 40 percent cut in road maintenance funds.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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