- Associated Press - Monday, March 23, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The retirement fund for Kentucky’s public school teachers is running out of money, the state’s road fund is scheduled to lose $150 million on April 1, and hundreds of people are dying from heroin overdoses in the state every year.

Bills that would address all of those issues have appeared to hit a wall in the state legislature as the House and Senate reconvened Monday afternoon for the final two days of the 2015 legislative session. Potential compromises were so far from completion that leaders from both political parties said it was possible lawmakers could extend the session beyond Tuesday’s scheduled last day, making up some canceled snow days from earlier in the year.

The biggest issue is a bill that would address Kentucky’s growing heroin abuse problem. Heroin overdose deaths have jumped nearly 1,000 percent in just two years as people addicted to prescription drugs seek out less-expensive alternatives. Heroin is also more widely available and can have similar effects as the prescription drugs.

House and Senate leaders have struggled to find common ground in what Democratic state Rep. John Tilley has described as philosophical differences over how long drug dealers should go to prison, whether the state should help addicts gain access to clean needles and whether to prosecute people who call 911 to report a heroin overdose.

Late Monday night, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a compromise bill that would use taxpayer money to pay for local needle-exchange programs, but only if approved by local elected officials. The bill would not charge heroin addicts who call 911 if they are overdosing. Neither would it charge so-called good Samaritans - someone using drugs alongside the overdose victim and who calls 911 on their behalf.

The bill also would require heroin dealers to serve at least 50 percent of their jail sentence before they were eligible for parole.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said the bill reflected a compromise House and Senate negotiators had agreed to on Friday night, but that House members later rejected. The committee also passed a watered-down version that did not include the needle exchange, enhanced penalties or good-Samaritan provisions.

“We made a commitment to bring this and say this is what we agreed on. And now they’ve backed up on the commitment,” Stivers said. “I think it is a fair and reasonable approach. There was give and take on both sides.”

Democratic state Rep. John Tilley said it was premature to say the two sides had agreed to a deal, but added he is confident they can reach a compromise before the session ends.

Lawmakers also have struggled to find consensus on what to do with the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, which is projected to run out of money by 2036 if lawmakers cannot find a way to stabilize the fund. House Democrats passed a bill that would borrow $3.3 billion to prop up the system for the next eight years, lessening the annual required payments from taxpayers while giving lawmakers and retirement officials time to find another solution.

But Senate Republicans have balked at the prospect of going into debt to pay off a debt. Monday morning, Senate Republicans broke off negotiations with House Democrats because they were waiting on a key piece of financial information before offering a counterproposal. Republican Sen. Joe Bowen declined to elaborate.

“I can’t say a word other than what I just said,” Bowen said. “You know, the clock is ticking. We understand that.”

The state gas tax - which is tied to the wholesale price of fuel - is scheduled to drop 5.1 cents per gallon on April 1, and Democrats and Republicans continued their secret negotiations on Monday to stop that decrease. More than 100 people, led by local elected officials from across the state, gathered in the Capitol rotunda to urge lawmakers to stop the decrease because they said the resulting cut in spending would hurt them after a frigid winter with two record snowfalls, which damaged roads and bridges.


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