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This week in Frankfort: Legislative session moving slowly

By February and March, this 2014 General Assembly will be at flank speed

By Scott Payton
LRC Public Information

FRANKFORT, Ky. (Jan. 17, 2014) — Any description of any Legislature begs for metaphor, or, if you like, simile. Here’s one: Full legislative sessions, 60 working days with a budget to write and an election year ahead, are like supertankers. Slow to start. Slow to turn. Not graceful at launch. But once on high seas, pure, heavy momentum, straight with purpose and intent.

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Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, R-Southgate, follows testimony by Col. Wayne Turner, Bellevue Chief of Police, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee, and later the full Senate, passed a bill sponsored by Stine to combat Kentucky’s growing heroin addiction problem.

By February and March, this 2014 General Assembly will be at flank speed. The Orders of the Day will grow longer. Bills will flow and fly. But this month, it’s mainly a matter of getting this huge thing, this Kentucky Legislature, out of dockage and into free water.

Much of that is the simple challenge of process.

A legislature is and ought to be a deliberative body. It takes time for committees to call up bills, debate them, hear from citizens, amend them, and trickle them to the full chamber floors for further debate, passage — or death, however temporary or permanent.

Passed bills are then sent across the marbled Third Floor, to the other Chamber, where the whole process is repeated. And then there’s working out differences between Chamber versions, in conference committees. And even that’s not the end of the legislative session. A governor must sign or veto, and if the latter, the Chambers vote again, to override or not.

That’s process. But part of January’s seeming early lull is simply political.

The filing deadline for this year’s legislative races is month’s end. Controversial bills normally wait till the electoral landscape is in focus, especially true this year with districts now redrawn.

Last week’s opening days were mostly taking care of business, the usual housekeeping and administrative matters, ethics training, saying hello to old friends, and digesting a Governor’s report, in a joint session speech, of how he surveys the commonwealth’s landscape. It was, however, just a foretaste. The meat will be served in his Budget Address this coming Tuesday.

This week was different than last. It saw a hothouse bloom of committee meetings, and the first floor votes on a few bills. Senate committees considered measures representing that chamber’s priorities. The House was similarly active, getting business up to speed, with bills already on the floor and budget subcommittees readying for what may be bloody work.

A leader in both Chambers discussed casino gambling, a perennial gubernatorial priority but a legislative no-go for years, positively this week, with bills filed. That’s a tale unfolding we’ll surely revisit here. An unsure ‘stay tuned’ moment, but intriguing in its implications.

This is just a beginning that, as described above and here before, is a journey of many hurdles, hills and rivers. The trip to the law books is a long one. A bill that wants passage stands in the rain for months till the door opens and it’s accepted into law. It may never be, or may take years. But at week’s end several important measures were on their way.

— House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown (right), congratulates Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, after passage of a bill sponsored by Crenshaw to put forth a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to some felons.
— House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown (right), congratulates Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, after passage of a bill sponsored by Crenshaw to put forth a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to some felons.

One of the first major bills approved in one chamber this year was a Senate bill, a forceful but thoughtful move in our never-ending war on drugs.  It addresses what might be called an unintended consequence of earlier legislative crackdown on so called Pill Mills, where addictive painkillers were dispensed freely to addicts. Street heroin emerged over time as the drug of choice among the painkiller-deprived. Heroin overdose deaths have jumped more than sixfold since 2011. Senate Bill 5 takes a many-pronged approach to combat the new epidemic.

It increases treatment funding for heroin and opiate addiction, requiring Medicaid to cover it. It also allows emergency first-responders to administer Naloxone, a life-saving breath-restoring drug to overdose victims. And it gives Good Samaritans some shield of legal immunity when seeking medical care for someone who’s overdosed.

Other provisions of SB 5 address drug peddling. It puts new backbone in penalties for big-time heroin — and methamphetamine — traffickers. They’ll have to serve at least half their sentence before being eligible for probation. Prosecutors have more leeway to charge traffickers with criminal homicide in cases of fatal overdose.

A second Senate bill moving this week would help give Kentuckians in medically underserved areas better access to quality healthcare. Senate Bill 7 would allow some nurse practitioners to independently prescribe non-scheduled – or routine non-narcotic, non-addictive – medicines. Nurse practitioners with at least four years’ experience would be cut loose to prescribe common daily medications without a doctor’s collaborative consent. Many Kentuckians, especially in rural parts of the state, rely on nurse practitioners for routine care.

Across the Capitol, House Bill 70, a long-sought House measure that would allow Kentucky voters to decide whether to automatically approve restored voting rights for nonviolent felons who’ve paid their debt to society, passed the full Chamber.

This being a budget session, and since the budget bill must originate in the House, the hot center of House action will be in budget review subcommittees that will soon begin hearing from state agencies and others concerning their financial needs for the next two years. Given revenue growth said to be already claimed by existing necessities, the subcommittees’ work will be, at best, challenging.

As mentioned, lawmakers will also hear from the governor on Tuesday, Jan. 21 when he outlines his take on the state’s biennial budget needs and his suggestions to meet them, in his Budget Address. That should be a pivotal moment, at this outset, as the session gets to fourth gear.

Then this legislative session will define itself, as history watches.