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The week in Frankfort: Legislature addresses budget, drug abuse

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By Special to The Banner

So this is the way the session ends, not with fireworks, but with a budget delivered on time, not with grand and sweeping legislation, but with quietly important bills addressing this year’s absolute civic urgencies, while keeping Kentucky’s core government services intact, lean and hungry for sure, but alive to hope for better days.

That in itself is a real winter’s work, if you stop to think about it. Consider the train wreck lawmakers found when they convened in session Jan. 3.
Federal stimulus money was gone and wasn’t likely coming back, some $3.2 billion of it. Many of those dollars, along with other one-time money, creative accounting strategies, and 10 previous rounds of agency cuts had kept Kentucky shakily solvent through the grim years of the Great Recession.

But a day of reckoning had come. The Legislature came to town and looked down the barrel of a $740-million gap between anticipated spending and money available to spend. The pile to divide looked scarily meager.

The governor in January sent up a $19.5 billion two-year budget he freely admitted was ‘inadequate for the needs of our people,’ and asked unhappily for new agency cuts of 8.4 percent (though sparing Medicaid, Corrections and base SEEK funding for schools) across an already stripped and barren landscape. Lawmakers could find little, really, to disagree with - or, more on point, the flexibility to do so if they did. The budget submitted was tight as a tick.

The House discussed it for weeks in budget review subcommittees, and passed a spending plan that largely mirrored the governor’s. The Senate, the same. But on closer look, there were some meaningful differences, both between the governor and the Legislature and the House and the Senate. The latter - as expected and as always - required a conference committee of House and Senate leaders and budget chairs to iron out.

Those conferees, like their budget committees and full chambers before them, found little free air in a spending plan that might be the most closely drawn, even suffocating, in living memory. Unlike three sessions in the last ten years, when the Legislature adjourned without a budget agreement, this session’s scramble to fund just clear necessities left little room for the sort of philosophical stands-on-principle and end-of-session sound and fury those years saw. This year, no one spoke much about ‘discretionary spending.’

Still, there was one key area of disagreement to work through, and even that was mostly a matter of degree, not philosophy. The major divergence that became clear as the bill progressed from governor to House to Senate to conference involved an issue increasingly central to our politics, both federal and state: Public debt, and what’s an acceptable level of it.

The Kentucky Constitution, unlike the U.S Constitution, requires a balanced budget. But the state does have leeway to incur bonded debt.

Roads and capital projects can be funded by issuing bonds. Though the budget is technically balanced biennium-to-biennium, the Commonwealth can and does owe and borrow money. The governor originally proposed a level of projects bonding that the House, skittish about adding that much new debt, pared down considerably. The Senate whittled away further. Debt level was, arguably, the main issue conferees had to resolve.

They met throughout most of the week, into the early hours of Thursday morning, when an agreement finally came deep in the night with what one leader jokingly called ‘white smoke’ from the conference room. It came just minutes shy of a self-imposed process deadline of 3 a.m.

That was the drop-dead hour for getting a bill of this size proofed, printed, read by members, and ready for a Friday vote. (Lawmakers needed Friday budget passage to preserve their ability to override any line-item vetoes the governor might impose, when they return for the session calendar’s one reserved override day on April 12).

Meanwhile, two bills aimed at what some have called Kentucky’s most devastating social ill - drug abuse, legal and illegal - survived a long tough session, with one passing this week and the other still alive but not acted upon because of a process hang-up. Some say those bills, taken together, might be this year’s landmark legislation.

One (an anti-methamphetamine bill) had a rockier session journey than the other, which is aimed at the growing epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse, and the ‘pill mills’ that shovel them to addicts. However, while the anti-meth bill got final passage Friday, action on the pill mill measure had to be delayed because certain procedural ‘letters’ hadn’t been dotted and crossed. The legislative process is very precise - some might say picky -- as befits the enactment of law.

The methamphetamine bill as finally constituted would restrict how much of the decongestant pseudoephedrine consumers could buy without a prescription. Pseudoephedrine is found in cold and allergy meds like Claritin-D and Mucinex-DM. It is also a key precursor ingredient used in cooking meth.

Senate Bill 3 would limit over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine in pill or tablet form to 7.2 grams in any month and a cumulative 24 grams a year. A generic box of pseudoephedrine with 48 pills, each with the standard 30-milligram dose, contains 1.44 grams of the medicine.

The bill’s advocates had wanted even lower OTC limits (in fact, the measure had started out requiring a doctor’s prescription for all decongestants of that class) but it was scaled back in the face of ferocious opposition, led most notably by an industry group that ruled the airwaves this winter with radio ads warning about the cost and inconvenience to law-abiding families who’d have to go to a doctor for meds for simple sniffles. (The group, in fact, opposed to the end even the bill’s latest, milder iteration).

One thing to keep in mind: Gel caps and liquid pseudoephedrine are excluded from the limits because it’s problematic and rare to cook meth from liquid forms. So the sniffles drug itself will still be available OTC to all comers, in any amount, though maybe not in the form folks prefer.

The Legislature had previously tried to limit pseudoephedrine sales by requiring a signature and photo ID to buy it and placing the pills in secure areas behind store counters. But that didn’t solve the meth lab problem, which has only grown - and which explains why proponents said even further restrictions were needed.

Meanwhile, the Senate took up House Bill 4, designed to get a regulatory handle on the growing and deadly phenomenon of pill mills, fly-by-night pain clinics that contribute to the state’s emerging epidemic of prescription-drug abuse by making powerful pain meds easy for addicts and abusers to get legally. Officials say more Kentuckians die every year from legal-drug overdoses than in highway crashes. The number’s around a thousand.

A key provision of the bill transfers oversight of the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting program -- KASPER, it’s called -- to the attorney general’s office, where proponents of the move hope monitoring and enforcement of questionable prescribing trends will be more aggressive.

As the bill stood early Friday, it required that pain clinics be owned by trained pain-management physicians who live in Kentucky and practice on-site - many pill mills are now owned by non-physicians out of state, simple profiteers -- and that patient IDs be verified. Whether those provisions (or any others in the bill’s current version) will stand unchanged or be modified somewhat between now and the expected April vote is not known with certainty at this writing.

Final passage of both the meth and pain-clinic bills would mark what some will surely call the session’s most notable achievement, a twin strike at the heart of a two-headed beast that has ruined many lives (and taken many), rent families asunder, and devastated rural communities across the Commonwealth. Coupled with passage of a balanced budget in good and timely order, it would mark a satisfying end to a session that, while less contentious in its closing days than any in recent memory, was still beset from its earliest days with challenges (like a redistricting bill thrown out by the courts) that made such success seem elusive.

And so the session ended, almost quietly. Lawmakers called closing time, shut the lights and chamber doors, and left the Third Floor to its echoes. The end felt abrupt, but better than some recent sessions with their lingering uncertainty.

They’ll be back for one last day, in 13 days, to likely deal with pill mills and certainly answer whatever the governor’s veto pen says about their work (with nothing to stop them from passing another stray unresolved bill or two; it just won’t be veto-proof).

--Legislative Research Commission