Lawmakers inch closer on heroin bill, but obstacles remain
The resolution is likely to be left up to a conference committee.
Wednesday, March 11th 2015, 4:30 pm EDT by
Wednesday, March 11th 2015, 4:54 pm EDT
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- With time running out in the session, lawmakers still have not reached agreement on a bill to fight Kentucky's heroin epidemic, and the final resolution may come down to the wire.
Leaders in both the House and Senate insist they want to get a heroin bill done, but the two sides still appear to be far apart. Late Tuesday night, the House Judiciary Committee passed a new heroin bill that contains some compromises.
The new bill also resolves a dispute over whether the final version will come from the Democratic House or the Republican Senate.
"Senate Bill 192, which will be now the vehicle, at least for now, represents somewhat of a compromise there," said Rep. John Tilley (D-Hopkinsville), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
It's clear, however, the two sides still have major differences.
"I think there's an opportunity to break through it, but we'll see," said Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville), the Senate Judiciary chairman.
The bill still contains a program that provides addicts with clean needles, in exchange for dirty ones. Senate Republicans generally oppose it. House Democrats want it.
"It's a great public health response to a public health crisis," said Tilley.
Republicans want tougher sentences for lower level drug dealers than do Democrats.
"Regarding the traffickers, I feel like we need to hit harder than we're hitting, and that's what we'd like to see," said Westerfield.
It appears any agreement is now going to be up to a conference committee, which will try to work out the differences during a nine-day legislative recess starting Thursday.
"With none of the distractions of a session that is moving at a breakneck pace, it will give us a chance to pass a bill and come together," said Tilley.
Both sides do agree on one thing: the heroin crisis is urgent.
WDRB asked Westerfield if he believed a compromise can be reached and a bill passed before this session ends.
"I think so, and I hope so," responded Westerfield. "I'm still optimistic than we can, and we will."
Rep. Joni Jenkins (D-Louisville), whose nephew died of a heroin overdose, is counting on that.
"I think we're on the track to do a good bill that's going to save lives," said Jenkins.
If a deal does not get done during the session's final two days in late March, Gov. Steve Beshear could very well call lawmakers back into special session to deal with the problem.
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