- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear used his last State of the Commonwealth address to push an ambitious agenda to ban smoking statewide, require more children to ride in booster seats and to shield some heroin users from minor drug charges while they are seeking medical help.

Beshear has presided over some of the state’s most challenging economic times in recent memory, overseeing more than $1.6 billion in state budget cuts and an unemployment rate that came close to 11 percent. But the two-term governor took advantage of a string of recent economic successes - surging exports, record business investment and a 6 percent unemployment rate - to portray Kentucky as a state on the move in an election year where Democrats are trying to retain their decades of dominance in the governor’s office.

“Kentucky is back, and we’re back with a vengeance,” Beshear declared to rousing applause in a statewide televised speech before a joint session of the state legislature. “Folks, our vision is working.”

That vision has garnered national attention for Beshear’s decision to expand the state’s Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act. The Medicaid expansion attracted an additional 500,000 people to sign up for the government-funded health insurance. That was much more than state officials had anticipated, to the alarm of Republican lawmakers who worried how the state can pay for it in 2017 when the bill comes due.

But Beshear teased the lawmakers with some early results of a study he commissioned to analyze the economic effects of the expansion. Promising to release the full results in the next few weeks, Beshear said hospital Medicaid revenues have jumped $450 million while the state has added more than 5,000 new health-services jobs over the past year.

“You can argue the politics, but you can’t argue the results,” Beshear said.

But Beshear said the state’s gains in health care are undercut by its dependence on cigarette smoking, again calling for a statewide workplace smoking ban. Kentucky has one of the highest smoking rates in the country, which Beshear said accounts for about $2 billion in health care costs annually.

Historically, Kentucky farmers owe much of their prosperity to the tobacco crop, which has created a strong tobacco culture in the state. Last year, a statewide smoking ban failed to get a vote in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. But House Speaker Greg Stumbo told reporters Wednesday the body will vote on the ban in 2015.

“Folks, this is the 21st century. It’s time to accept modern medicine and science, and it’s time to protect our children and our workers from exposure,” Beshear said.

And Beshear worried the state was putting more children at risk by not requiring them to ride in booster seats until they are at least 9 years old or 57 inches tall. Kentucky law requires booster seats for children under 7 who are between 40 inches and 50 inches tall. But Beshear said pediatricians and federal highway safety officials say that’s not good enough because seat belts are designed for taller bodies.

But Beshear saved his most fervent pitch for a bill that would combat the state’s increase in heroin overdose deaths. He noted that heroin users made up 32 percent of all Kentucky overdose deaths in 2013, up from 5 percent in 2011.

He called for a sweeping bill that would protect law enforcement officers from accidental needle pricks when responding to calls, spend more money on treating drug addicts, and increase prison sentences for major drug traffickers. And he said drug users who call 911 during an overdose should be shielded from minor drug offenses.

A similar bill died last year amid partisan bickering on the legislature’s last day in session.

“There is a time and a need for political combat,” Beshear said. “That’s fine - as long we know that when the elections are over, we must work with the winners.”

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