Legislature Did Some Good Stuff; Important Work was also Left Undone

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HERALD-LEADER | OP-ED | MARCH 25, 2015

It may be a while before we’re sure of all that went down in the 2015 General Assembly’s witching hour, when ideas that would shrivel in the light of day can magically fly into law.

But what we know was accomplished in this session’s final hours merits applause: A smart heroin bill; long overdue protections for victims of stalking, sexual assault and dating violence; and a booster seat law that protects more Kentucky children.

Earlier, the University of Kentucky was assured $132.5 million to build a six-story medical research center. Teachers were assured training in recognizing and reporting child abuse. And a rating system sought by Gov. Steve Beshear for early childcare facilities was enacted.

In the session’s dying hours, lawmakers also showed that nothing inspires bipartisan accord like blacktop by approving a plan to stabilize the motor fuels tax that pays for roads.

That lawmakers waited until the 11th hour to even begin considering funding for critical infrastructure — rather than using hearings and debates to educate themselves and the public — is testament to the tax-phobia that for years has blocked modernization of Kentucky’s tax code.

Which brings us to the disappointments.

The Republican-controlled Senate killed a constitutional amendment that would have given cities and counties new options for raising money for infrastructure projects by levying a local sales tax if voters approve. Denying our cities economic development tools available to their competitors makes the whole state less competitive.

The Senate also killed a statewide smoke-free law without even bothering to hold a committee hearing. The good news — great news, really — is that the House, for the first time, approved a statewide law to protect Kentuckians from secondhand smoke on the job and in other enclosed public places.

Democrats control the House but some Republicans, including Lexington’s Rep. Robert Benvenuti, supported the smoke-free law which was again sponsored by Lexington legislator, Democrat Susan Westrom.

Sadly, lawmakers bowed to years of lobbying and put Kentuckians who need land-line telephones at the mercy of AT&T and the telecom industry. But the legislature bucked another corporate giant, AB InBev, in its quest to monopolize Kentucky’s beer market.

The legislature did nothing to reform personnel policies that have demoralized its staff in the Legislative Research Commission.

And, despite House approval of $3.3 billion in bonds for teachers retirement, the legislature did nothing to shore up public employee pension systems.

To its credit, the House killed what was aptly described as a back-room deal in the middle of the night that would have doubled limits on political contributions.

It’s taken years to get a dating violence law. Kudos to the lawmakers and advocates who worked so hard to overcome the inscrutable objections of some Senate Republicans.

The final product is a good law that for the first time makes civil protective orders available to victims of stalking and sexual abuse as well as dating violence.

Going into the final hours, the outlook seemed dim for a compromise on the heroin bill, which last year failed as the session ran out.

Hard work and compelling explanations by House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, along with smart strategy by Senate President Robert Stivers, overcame the backward objections of some Senate Republicans and produced a bill that became law as soon as Gov. Steve Beshear signed it Wednesday morning.

The new law protects from criminal prosecution those who report overdoses, creates a local option for health departments to start needle exchanges to stem infectious diseases and makes an overdose antidote more accessible.

The bill establishes a new crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, of importing heroin into Kentucky with the intent to distribute or sell it and stiffens some penalties but avoids draconian prison terms for users who sell small amounts.

The law’s emphasis dovetails with new Medicaid funding gained through the Affordable Care Act to finally expand access to addiction treatment in Kentucky.