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Late Night Legislative Rush Produces Heroin, Gas Tax Bills

Josh James

The final hours of the 2015 General Assembly saw passage of several measures billed as signature pieces of legislation, including a last minute compromise to shore up the state’s ailing Road Fund, but the session did not conclude at its usual hour.

Lawmakers may have excused some snow days for schools, but as midnight approached Tuesday it was clear the General Assembly would be making up for some of their own, adding back a 29th day.

The eventual gavel drop in the early morning hours signaled the end of a session marked by unexpected delays, showdowns on issues ranging from needle exchange programs to transgender bathroom use, and 11th hour jockeying over key bills – most notably heroin. In the final hours, legislators converged on compromise language stiffening some penalties for serious traffickers, allowing for opt-in needle exchange programs, and a Good Samaritan clause.

"We came together. I think the stakes were too high," said Rep. John Tilley, who led the charge in the House. "We had some different philosophies, but we came together in a very bipartisan way and passed what I think is one of the most comprehensive pieces we've had in some time."

Standing just outside the Senate chambers was Charlotte Wethington. The 2004 Kentucky involuntary drug treatment bill known as “Casey’s Law” is named for her daughter, who died at 23 of a heroin overdose.

"This is in honor and memory of all the people that we've lost and it's hope for all the people who are in crisis now," she said, her voice quivering.

Advocates for domestic violence protections for unmarried couples also breathed a sigh of relief as their bill cleared the Senate with little floor debate. The passage of both bills effectively eliminates the specter of a special session, which Governor Beshear had not ruled out in prior interviews.

Credit LRC Public Information
Sen. Ernie Harris had led the fight to stabilize the gas tax in the Senate

Gas Tax Revived

The comeback story of the night, however, belongs to House Bill 299, a gas tax freeze which appeared on life support earlier in the day.

Ignoring ads from conservative group Americans for Prosperity labeling the move a giveaway to special interests, House and Senate legislators revived the measure in the wee hours Tuesday by setting a new floor at 26 cents a gallon. The tax, which funds road construction and maintenance in the state, has suffered thanks to record low gas prices.

With the rate set to bottom out at 22.5 cents a gallon in April, transportation officials had warned that state coffers would be short $300 million dollars over the next two years.

Still the compromise hardly means full speed ahead for road projects. As Sen. Ernie Harris noted, "The state portion of the road plan was already 26 percent overprogrammed, so the fact that we've lost some money means that it's going to be probably not a six-year road plan. It's probably going to be an eight year road plan."

Earlier indications signaled a wariness by some lawmakers to attach their names to a measure being described opponents as a tax increase, but the General Assembly overcame those doubts to pass a compromise few had time to fully digest before the final vote.

Credit LRC Public Information
Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, speaks at a Capitol rally advocating student involvement in the hiring of school superintendents.

Student Measure Stalls

Students pushing for representation on superintendent search committees went home empty-handed Tuesday night. Though a controversial amendment limiting transgender students to bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex was removed, additional Senate language guaranteeing students’ right to religious expression proved too much to overcome in the Democratic-led House.

In a floor speech, Sen. Reggie Thomas argued the General Assembly’s failure send a clean bill to the governor imparts the wrong message.

"This Senate has succeeded in doing one thing," the Lexington Democrat said. "We have now shown every young person across this state how messy, how futile, and how ineffective government is."

But Republican Sen. Mike Wilson maintained the exercise was a valuable one for the high schoolers.

"These students I've met with on several occasions and I think they have learned a lot about the process and it is a process that is somewhat messy... because that's the way our forefathers designed the process, that it would be hard to pass a bill," Wilson countered.

A protest organized by the students and their supporters drew hundreds to the foot of the Capitol Monday.

Other Bills

In addition to high profile measures, the General Assembly sent a number of smaller bills to Governor Beshear’s desk late Tuesday.

Both chambers agreed to a new framework for the board that oversees the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The move comes in response to a scathing report from State Auditor Adam Edelen, which uncovered inappropriate spending on the panel. The changes outlining a new 13-member board do not include any spots for Ohio representatives, as Edelen had recommended, but Kenton County could seek their input on two of the seats.

Lawmakers also approved Alicia’s Law, setting up a dedicated funding stream for the Kentucky State Police Internet Crimes Against Children division. Meanwhile, House Bill 150 blocks unsuccessful candidates in primary elections from running in regular elections as write-ins, while House Bill 60 will require individuals convicted of drunk driving to install ignition interlock devices on their cars.

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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