Kentucky Governor Can’t|Cut University Budgets

     (CN) — Ending a battle between the state’s governor and attorney general, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Gov. Matt Bevin does not have the power to unilaterally cut state universities’ budgets.
     Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear sued Bevin in April, claiming the governor overstepped his authority by slashing state funding for higher education without legislative approval.
     Bevin, a Republican, was elected last year. He has proposed $650 million in state spending cuts over the next two years as part of an effort to pay down Kentucky’s state pension plan debt.
     As part of the budget proposal, Bevin called for a $41 million cut in funding for the state’s public colleges and universities.
     The legislature rejected the proposal, but Bevin, who insists the state’s public pension plan is on the brink of insolvency, made the cuts anyway.
     Beshear, a Democrat, blasted the move, saying, “The governor’s unilateral action in cutting the appropriated funding of colleges, universities and community colleges was outside of his authority. It requires a declared shortfall that does not exist. If it did, the last budget bill that was passed and signed into law dictates the steps that must be taken.”
     He gave the governor seven days to restore the funding, but the governor ignored him.
     During an April 11 press conference, Beshear said, “The general welfare and material well-being of citizens of the Commonwealth depend in large measure upon the development of a well-educated and highly trained workforce.”
     “Those are not my words, they are Kentucky law – passed by the legislature and codified into law. So in Kentucky, a university or community college education is not a privilege, it is a vital necessity for our economic survival. That’s not my opinion, that’s the law,” the attorney general said.
     In May, Franklin County Judge Thomas Wingate ruled against Beshear, granting Bevin’s motion for summary judgment.
     “It is widely recognized that the administration and expenditure of legislatively appropriated money is an executive function. Contrary to the attorney general’s insistence, the governor has not stolen the power of the purse,” Wingate wrote. “The governor has used his executive discretion for spending appropriated funds within the permissible limitations of his power. Many of the affected universities have released public statements admitting that they can live with the downward revisions without overall negative impact.”
     Beshear appealed and the Kentucky Supreme Court sided with the attorney general Thursday, reversing the lower court and ruling 5-2 that state law does not give Bevin the power to slash funding for colleges.
     “The governor’s reduction of the allotments of the universities in this case exceeded his statutory authority to revise allotments under KRS 48.620(1) and his authority to withhold allotments under KRS 45.253(4),” Justice Mary Noble wrote for the court. “Whatever authority he might otherwise have to require a budget unit not to spend appropriated funds does not extend to the universities, which the legislature has made independent bodies politic with control over their own expenditures. We therefore do not reach the question of whether his actions were constitutional, as the statutes do not give him the authority to act as he proposed.”
     Chief Justice John Minton Jr. and Justices Bill Cunningham, Lisabeth Hughes and Michelle Keller joined Noble in the majority.
     Justices Daniel Venters and Samuel Wright III disagreed with the decision in two separate dissenting opinions.
     Venters said Beshear did not have standing to bring the lawsuit.
     “The majority has no express constitutional or direct statutory authority to support its conclusion that the attorney general has standing to sue the chief executive to enjoin an executive action, and so it bases its opinion on the vague notion that such authority was available to attorneys general at common law,” Venters wrote. “That notion is flat-out wrong.”
     Wright said in his dissent that “the majority does not reference the fact that the state university presidents met with the governor and reached an agreement.”
     “The universities did not join the lawsuit and neither party so much as deposed their representatives,” Wright wrote.
     Amanda Stamper, press secretary for Bevin’s office, said the governor “strongly” disagreed with the Kentucky Supreme Court’s reasoning and the university budget cuts were meant to help fix the state’s pension problem.
     “The Commonwealth’s public universities have thousands of employees who participate in our pension system and, having such a large stake, should be part of the solution to fix the state’s $35 billion underfunded pension liability,” Stamper said in a statement. “Gov. Bevin recognizes that preserving our retirement systems for state workers and retirees is both a legal and moral obligation.”
     Beshear, meanwhile, applauded Thursday’s ruling.
     “Today, the Supreme Court enforced Kentucky law, reminding us that ‘the governor, like everyone, is bound by the law,'” the attorney general said. “Based on today’s ruling, I am calling on Gov. Bevin to immediately release the $18 million he wrongfully withheld from our public colleges and universities.”
     The University of Louisville said in a statement that the ruling “gives state universities some measure of stability in planning and funding.”

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