Politics & Government

Bevin orders marriage license changes; reverses Beshear on felon voting rights, minimum wage

Governor Matt Bevin gave his inaugural speech on the Capitol Steps in Frankfort, Ky., on Dec. 8, 2015.
Governor Matt Bevin gave his inaugural speech on the Capitol Steps in Frankfort, Ky., on Dec. 8, 2015. palcala@herald-leader.com

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin filed five executive orders late Tuesday to start reshaping state government along conservative ideological lines, including one that removes county clerks’ names from marriage licenses, granting the request of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who opposes same-sex marriage. Others reversed earlier executive orders by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to restore voting rights to felons and for a higher minimum wage for state workers and employees of state vendors.

On marriage licenses, Bevin cited the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act as he removed the names of counties and county clerks, and allowed clerks to designate a third party to sign them. Davis asked Beshear to do this last summer while she refused to issue marriage licenses in Rowan County. Davis said her Christian beliefs made it impossible for her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in June, leading to several lawsuits against her and five days in jail for contempt of court.

The existing marriage license “creates a substantial burden on the freedom of religion of some county clerks and employees of their offices because the current form bears the name of the issuing county clerk, and some county clerks and their employees sincerely believe that the presence of their name on the form implies their personal endorsement of, and participation in, same-sex marriage, which conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Bevin wrote in his executive order.

The new license, which Bevin ordered the state Department for Libraries and Archives to create, lists at the top of the form only the Commonwealth of Kentucky, not the county or the county clerk. There is a line at the bottom where an “issuing official” may sign, but one of Davis’ lawyers on Tuesday said that could be — as Davis has arranged it in Rowan County — a willing deputy clerk who signs only as a notary public.

“It’s a great Christmas present for Kim Davis and for others like her,” said attorney Mat Staver.

The lawsuits involving Davis, the state and several same-sex couples from Rowan County, pending in federal district and appeals courts, now might be moot, Staver said. Bevin’s order essentially ratifies the licensing system Davis has improvised since her release from jail last summer, he said.

“I believe this may bring the cases to an end in a way that brings victory to Kim Davis and other like-minded clerks,” Staver said.

However, critics on Tuesday said state law establishes the contents of Kentucky marriage licenses, including an authorization statement and a signature by the county clerk, and a governor cannot change state law through an executive order. If the General Assembly wants to rewrite the law when it meets this winter, it can, but the language on marriage licenses otherwise cannot be altered, they said.

“I don’t see how the governor on his own can eliminate the clerks’ names from these forms. I would imagine a lawsuit will be filed,” said Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins.

When Beshear altered marriage licenses in June to allow for same-sex couples, that was at the instruction of the Supreme Court, which had just struck down Kentucky’s ban on gay marriage, Blevins said.

Fairness Campaign, a gay rights group based in Louisville, called Bevin’s order “disappointing but not surprising.”

“It doesn’t come out of the blue, because this was something Governor Bevin was promising to do during his campaign,” said Chris Hartman, director of Fairness Campaign. “But it’s still disappointing. It’s a clear signal to Kim Davis and her camp that if you object to doing portions of your job — even if you’re an elected official — the executive branch will give you an out.”

In his other executive orders, Bevin:

▪  Suspended Beshear’s Nov. 24 executive order that automatically restored the right to vote to most nonviolent felons who have served out their sentences — a pool that potentially included many tens of thousands of Kentuckians.

“While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights,” Bevin said in a prepared statement, “it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people.”

Bevin’s order will not retroactively affect felons who, since Nov. 24, have received a certificate from the state Department of Corrections confirming their restoration of rights. It was not known Tuesday night how many such certificates have been issued.

Bevin said felons may continue requesting a restoration of their civil rights from the governor’s office, which includes the right to vote, to serve on a jury, to hold elected office and to obtain a professional or vocational license. That was how Beshear handled it “for essentially the entire eight years of his administration,” until he changed the process “less than two weeks prior to the expiration of his term,” Bevin said.

The Democratic-led House repeatedly has approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore the right to vote to most felons who complete their sentences, but it has been blocked in the Republican-led Senate. House Democratic leaders on Tuesday criticized Bevin for reversing Beshear’s action on voting rights.

“I am extremely disappointed with the executive order on felon voting rights, which to me goes against promises Governor Bevin made during his campaign. I will continue championing the amendment that will give voters a chance to put Kentucky in line with the vast majority of states on this issue,” said House Judiciary chairman Darryl Owens, D-Louisville.

▪  Reversed Beshear’s June 8 executive order that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for hundreds of the lowest-paid workers in state government’s executive branch and the employees of vendors who signed contracts with the executive branch.

An estimated 800 state workers who already have received pay raises as a result of Beshear’s order may keep them, but all new state hires will start at the previously established pay scale, Bevin said. The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

“The minimum wage stifles job creation and disproportionately impacts lower skilled workers seeking entry-level jobs,” Bevin wrote in his executive order. “Wage rates ideally would be established by the demands of the labor market instead of being set by the government.”

The Berea-based Kentucky Center for Economic Policy called Bevin’s order “a step backward for many hard-working Kentuckians who have seen their wages remain flat despite a growing economy.”

“While no current employee will see their increased wages be rolled back, this creates an unfair system for any new hires,” said Kenny Colston, the center’s spokesman. “We encourage state lawmakers to take executive orders out of this completely by passing a statewide minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour.”

▪  Placed a freeze on hiring for all vacant positions in state government, due to “severe financial challenges” facing Kentucky, including many billions of dollars owed to the state pension systems.

Bevin said he would reduce the size of the state work force “through attrition and other means as determined.” Any future hires must be justified and approved by the secretary of the Personnel Cabinet as “essential to the delivery of services,” Bevin wrote.

Under Beshear, who regularly had to cut the state budget, the work force employed by Kentucky’s executive, judicial and legislative branches fell 9 percent, to 35,950 at the start of fiscal year 2015.

▪  Abolished the Governor’s Employee Advisory Council, which then-Gov. Paul Patton established in 2001 and Beshear reinstituted in 2008 by executive order.

“The purpose of the council is to ask state employees to advise and make recommendations to the governor relating to employee/employer relations; to give front-line state employees a stronger voice in Frankfort; and to create a two-way communication mechanism between front-line state merit employees and the governor’s office,” according to the state Personnel Cabinet website, which links to several public employee unions.

The council serves no useful purpose because the governor “is without authority, constitutional or otherwise, to extend negotiation and collective bargaining rights to employees of the commonwealth,” Bevin wrote in his order. “The merit system has been effective in keeping politics out of the working environment of state employees and, therefore, it would not be prudent to do anything that would undermine this system.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics