- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers said Friday his chamber will do its part to get final negotiations started on legislation to combat heroin well before the final days of the legislative session.

Differing versions to confront the drug scourge have passed the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-run House. Now each chamber is waiting on the other to take up their bills.

From his end of the Capitol, Stivers told reporters, “We’re going to try to move it quickly so it doesn’t sit there until the … waning hours of the session.”

Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo have stressed their desire to get a comprehensive heroin bill to Gov. Steve Beshear’s desk before the legislative session ends in March.

Stumbo said Friday that the dialogue will continue as lawmakers review each chamber’s work.

“I am convinced that this session will end with a strong bill, and we are on track to achieve that,” Stumbo said in a statement on a day the House decided not to be in session due to bitter cold that followed heavy snowfall.

Senate leaders on Friday assigned the House-passed bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel’s chairman, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, said he’s hoping for a committee vote next week.

“If we can pull that off, that would be great,” the Hopkinsville Republican said.

His committee may first have an informational hearing to review differences in the bills, he said.

The Senate passed its approach to combatting heroin during the first week of the session in January. House leaders referred the measure to the House Judiciary Committee earlier in February.

Heroin was also proclaimed a top priority in last year’s legislative session. But efforts to pass a bill to strengthen penalties for heroin traffickers and increase state spending on drug treatment programs died at midnight on the legislature’s final day, with House lawmakers squabbling over procedural decorum.

Some key differences are looming if the issue comes down to House-Senate negotiations this year.

The House bill includes a provision allowing local governments to create programs in which heroin users could swap dirty needles for clean ones. Advocates say needle exchanges help lure drug users into treatment and promote public health because clean needles prevent diseases like Hepatitis C.

The House proposal would leave it up to communities whether to start the program. But the needle exchange provision is drawing strong Senate opposition.

“It is as if government is promoting the use of heroin by providing needles,” Stivers told reporters Friday.

The House bill also would toughen penalties for higher-volume traffickers. The Senate measure would treat all heroin dealers the same, regardless of how much heroin they sell.

Stivers said he was hopeful of reaching accommodation on that part of the bill.

“Hopefully, that wouldn’t be a sticking point that would keep us from getting a substantial bill that will make substantial steps in fighting the problem,” he said.

Other key provisions being pushed seek to improve drug treatment and increase the availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose.

Kentucky had 230 overdose deaths in 2013 because of heroin, up from 22 in 2011. Areas of northern Kentucky have been especially hard hit by overdose deaths.

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