Attorney General Andy Beshear accused Republicans of a power grab Wednesday in presenting legislation to give the governor more power in determining what lawsuits Beshear can file.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, presented a substitute to House Bill 281 in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would strip Beshear’s powers.
Beshear called the substitute bill “partisan, personal and vindictive” and said it would create “a get-out-of-jail-free card” for the governor.
The Democratic law-enforcement official said he would challenge the constitutionality of the measure if it becomes law and said he thinks Gov. Matt Bevin, whom he already has challenged in court in three cases, is behind the legislation.
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Stivers said the governor, a Republican, didn’t seek the measure. The governor’s office didn’t have an immediate comment.
Stivers’ presentation to the Judiciary Committee was a surprise move. The measure would set limits on how much Beshear’s office could pay some of the outside attorneys it hires and require him to submit an annual report on such contracts.
Stivers said his committee substitute was designed to spell out the powers of the attorney general. He called it “a teaching moment.” He also expressed disappointment that Beshear has said he wouldn’t defend the law approved earlier this year by the legislature that prohibits abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
He said the substitute would give the governor authority to represent the state in civil lawsuits. Exceptions, he said, would include Medicaid fraud claims, proposed utility rate hikes and consumer protection issues.
Beshear said the measure could affect all lawsuits that his office files.
Two major suits that Beshear has filed against Bevin involve the governor’s revamping of the University of Louisville board and his cuts to university budgets last year.
Beshear said he thinks Bevin was involved in Stivers’ measure. The legislation affects the exact division of his office that Bevin recently sought information about, Beshear said.
He also said Stivers used some of the words Bevin used in his briefings about the information. “Do you think the Senate president didn’t ask the governor whether he would like that power?”
Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his concern about Stivers’ proposal is that an attorney general could sue a governor, and then the governor’s office could decide whether a ruling is appealed or not.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said she regretted that Stivers’ proposal was given so late to the committee. Beshear said he wasn’t aware of it until about 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Webb said lawmakers need more information and time to study the measure.
The committee didn’t vote on the measure Wednesday, but Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said he has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday to consider it.
During discussion in the committee meeting, Westerfield told Beshear to quit referring to the committee substitute as a criminal act. Beshear countered that there are “serious constitutional issues.” Westerfield lost to Beshear in the 2015 state race for attorney general.
Before the substitute was presented, Beshear testified against the initial HB 281, which focuses on personal service contracts that Beshear uses to hire lawyers for big cases, especially against corporations. In some instances, the lawsuits generate tens of millions of dollars for the state.
Under most of these contracts, Beshear pays one dollar up front and then gives a portion of any money won in the lawsuit to the law firm. HB 281 limits how much money those law firms can receive, with a contingency fee cap of $20 million.
Several Republicans said the bill would bring needed legislative oversight to the process.
Beshear said it would limit his ability to hire expert attorneys and would protect multinational corporations that have hurt Kentuckians.