- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Taxpayers will spend money to keep heroin dealers in prison longer and give addicts a steady supply of clean needles, and they won’t get a tax break at the gas pump after a wild final day in the state legislature.

Lawmakers overcame more than three years of deep philosophical differences about how to treat addicts and the criminal penalties that should be imposed on them and their dealers when they passed a bill Tuesday strengthening penalties for heroin dealers while authorizing local needle exchange programs.

After midnight, they succumbed to pressure from Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and a host of local state officials to effectively stop a drop in the state’s gas tax that was scheduled to take effect April 1. While the 5.1-cents-per-gallon drop would have meant cheaper prices at the pump for consumers, it would be a $150 million cut to the state’s road fund on top of the $129 million cut that resulted from a similar decrease in January.

Kentucky’s gas tax is tied to the wholesale prices of fuel. The current tax is 26.2 cents per gallon. It had been scheduled to fall to 22.1 cents per gallon on April 1. Instead, lawmakers agreed to drop it to 26 cents per gallon and freeze it so it could never fall below that.

“Our Transportation Cabinet tells me that if we don’t do something, the transportation budget will run out of cash by August of 2016,” Beshear said earlier in the day in urging lawmakers to freeze the gas tax.

But some Republicans were furious, arguing the state was breaking its promise to taxpayers.

“We’re changing the rules of the game in the 9th inning,” state Rep. Robert Benvenuti said. “When the tax dollars (were) flying through the door, nobody complained.”

The bills were just some of the dozens sent to Beshear’s desk on Tuesday as lawmakers scrambled to reach deals in secret meetings on the final day of the 2015 legislative session. But as the clock struck midnight, lawmakers opted to keep working by making up a day they had missed in February because of a snow storm. Lawmakers agreed to require ignition interlock devices on the vehicles of some repeat DUI offenders and to increase the height requirement for children in booster seats. And Kentucky became the last state in the country to offer civil protections to victims of abusive dating relationships.

But other bills, including borrowing $3.3 billion to bail out the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, perished as lawmakers could not reach an agreement.

The heroin legislation was lawmakers’ top priority. In 2011, the legislature made it much harder for people to get prescription pain killers. In the two years that followed, addicts turned to the cheaper and more readily available heroin, an opioid with similar effects to prescription painkillers. As a result, heroin overdose deaths jumped to 230 in 2013 from just 22 in 2011, placing pressure on lawmakers to do something.

The bill, which Beshear has indicated he will sign into law, lets local governments set up needle-exchange programs where addicts can swap dirty needles for clean ones in an effort to prevent disease and death. And it toughens penalties for heroin dealers of at least 60 grams, requiring them to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence before they would be eligible for parole.

The bill increases spending by about $10 million for various substance-abuse treatment programs. It includes funding for Vivitrol, what Tilley called a “miracle drug” that blocks the effects of heroin and other drugs, making it easier for addicts to stop using them. And it would shield people who call 911 to report an overdose from being charged with drug possession.

“I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure that other families didn’t go through what we did,” said state Rep. Joni Jenkins, whose nephew Wes died from a heroin overdose in 2013. “We spent a year of trying to find proper treatment. And hopefully that’s going to be easier for families.”

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