- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky’s top law enforcement officer says the most pressing issue for the new GOP majority in the state legislature should be fighting the emerging threat of synthetic drug abuse instead of rescuing a failing public pension system.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear told reporters Tuesday the drug epidemic is the state’s single greatest problem. Republicans won a majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years last month. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who has been feuding with Beshear for much of 2016, has said the state’s public pension system - and its more than $30 billion debt - is his top priority.

“We have a very important pension problem that we have to tackle, but a pension hasn’t killed anyone’s father or mother or taken a child from a parent,” Beshear said. “This drug epidemic is the single largest threat to the lives of our citizens and also to our economy itself.”

Drug overdose deaths increased 16 percent in Kentucky last year, while nationally more than 50,000 people died in 2015, the most ever recorded. Kentucky’s increase came despite new laws that took effect that year that spent more money on drug treatment programs and strengthened penalties against drug dealers.

An alarming trend has been the rise of fentanyl, a synthetic drug that resembles heroin. It accounted for 34 percent of all Kentucky overdose deaths in 2016, while national fentanyl overdose deaths increased by 73 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The future of drugs isn’t in a field, it’s in a lab,” Beshear said.

Beshear said the legislature needs to better define what fentanyl is to be sure the law covers its many iterations. He also said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services needs more authority to ban new versions of fentanyl as it discovers them. And Beshear said selling any amount of fentanyl should be a felony and carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, unless it can be proven the seller has a serious drug addiction.

Democratic state Reps. Russ Meyer and Dennis Keene have already filed fentanyl legislation, and so has Republican state Rep. Joseph Fischer, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

But Beshear’s effort to pass legislation this year could be thwarted by his toxic relationship with Bevin.

Beshear has sued Bevin three times so far, seeking to block Bevin’s efforts to enact mid-year budget cuts and public colleges and universities and to abolish and replace the boards at the University of Louisville and the Kentucky Retirement Systems. So far, the courts have sided with Beshear, who could challenge Bevin for re-election in 2019.

Bevin has responded by angrily rebuking Beshear in public and drawing attention to several scandals in the Attorney General’s office, including the guilty plea of Beshear’s top deputy on federal bribery charges, an investigator accused of lying to a grand jury and a former staff attorney who filed a sex discrimination lawsuit.

“We don’t have any more personnel issues than any cabinet in state government tor the governor’s office itself,” Beshear said. “The only difference is the governor as a matter of policy does not comment on personnel issues in his office or a cabinet, but he tweets about them when they occur in this office and then tries to bully the press into writing about them.”

Bevin has his own ideas about reforming the state’s criminal justice system, appointing a committee to study the issue in June. But he did not ask anyone from Beshear’s office to participate.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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