Bevin would have sweeping power to abolish university boards under new proposal

Gov. Matt Bevin.
Gov. Matt Bevin. File photo.

A bill filed by Senate President Robert Stivers would grant sweeping powers to the governor to abolish every public educational governing board in Kentucky, including all eight state universities, the Kentucky Board of Education and the Council on Postsecondary Education.

Senate Bill 107 would allow Gov. Matt Bevin to remove a member or an entire board if he finds that the member or board is no longer functioning according to statutory mandate. That includes the “inability to hold regular meetings, to elect a chairperson, to establish a quorum, or to reach consensus among its members in order to carry out its primary function.”

Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, called the proposal “a huge power grab.”

“This is not the way democracy is supposed to work,” Jones said. “We have a legal system where governors are allowed to make appointments beyond their terms because you don’t want mass change in every board and agency every time there’s a change in administration for purely partisan reasons. The people of Kentucky are going to see this as a total abuse of power.”

The bill is a companion to Senate Bill 12, which was passed by the General Assembly on Saturday to deal specifically with the University of Louisville’s governing board. That legislation upholds Bevin’s decision last year to dissolve the U of L Board of Trustees over what he deemed as dysfunction, which also resulted in the resignation of President James Ramsey. SB 12 creates a new 13-member board and requires Senate approval of the 10 members appointed by the governor.

Stivers, R-Manchester, said the intent of his latest bill is to put other universities under the same rules the General Assembly imposed on U of L.

“We want to make sure what has happened at the University of Louisville never happens again,” Stivers, R-Manchester, said Saturday as he described SB 107 to reporters.

Complicating both pieces of legislation, however, is an ongoing lawsuit between Attorney General Andy Beshear and Bevin. On Monday, the Kentucky Supreme Court announced it would hear an appeal of the case, in which Beshear contends that Bevin exceeded his authority at U of L. A Franklin Circuit Court judge agreed that Bevin had overstepped his authority, but Bevin appealed.

Meanwhile, U of L’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, placed the school on probation, in part over concerns of “undue political influence” at the school.

Beshear said he thinks Stivers’ proposal could put the rest of the state’s public universities in hot water with the accrediting agency.

“I have great concerns that Senate Bill 107 would give the governor additional control over our universities and does nothing to limit the governor’s claim of absolute authority to dissolve a university board at any time and for any reason,” Beshear said Monday.

Beshear also said he will oppose any attempt by the governor’s office to dismiss the pending lawsuit because of the new law on U of L.

SACS officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on Monday.

Senate Majority Floor Leader David Givens, R-Greensburg, said he thinks the bill will change some as it moves through the legislative process when lawmakers reconvene on Feb. 7.

“There’s lot of gray area in the function component of the bill because dysfunction is not always bad,” he said. “This is a policy document, not a political endeavor, so there will be tightening down on that component.”

Lawmakers will work with university officials in coming weeks to more narrowly define what constitutes dysfunction, said Senate Republican Caucus spokesman John Cox. A provision that would require Senate approval of gubernatorial appointees also will be added to the bill, Cox said.

SB 107 also confirms that the membership of university boards must proportionally represent the state’s political party registration, a requirement that is already laid out in state law but has not always been enforced.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford