Politics & Government

Judge: Bevin has authority to make mid-year cuts to universities

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner on Jan. 7 at Heritage Hall in Lexington.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner on Jan. 7 at Heritage Hall in Lexington. Associated Press

Gov. Matt Bevin had legal authority to make mid-year budget cuts to Kentucky’s public universities and colleges this spring, a judge has ruled.

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate issued his opinion Wednesday afternoon, several weeks after Attorney General Andy Beshear and several lawmakers sued Bevin for ordering 2 percent mid-year cuts to the state’s public universities. Beshear argued that the governor could not make cuts in an already-enacted state budget without any shortfall in state revenue.

Beshear said he will file an immediate appeal and seek to have the case transferred directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

“While we respect Judge Wingate, his opinion is inconsistent with numerous decisions by the Supreme Court of Kentucky and confers dangerous levels of power on the governor,” Beshear said in a statement.

He added: “We always expected the Supreme Court to decide this matter, and we are confident that it will rule in our favor and hold that the budget is more than an advisory document.”

Wingate ruled that the state’s universities and colleges are part of the executive branch of government and that Bevin has the power to reduce budget allotments to units within that branch of government.

Although state law does not confer unlimited power on the governor, Wingate said, it “permits the governor a small amount of breathing room to perform his executive function, the administration of government. The court simply cannot endorse the position advanced by the attorney general and the intervening state representatives that all appropriated funds must be spent or made available for expenditure. This position is both an irresponsible one and an unsustainable one for a government to take.”

Because of the likelihood of an appeal, Wingate ordered the two parties to maintain an agreement that put $18 million — the 2 percent cut — in a separate account until the issue is resolved.

“We are grateful for the court’s prompt decision confirming our ability to manage the Commonwealth’s finances in a fiscally responsible manner,” Bevin said in a statement. “While others focus on politically motivated attacks, we continue to focus on strengthening Kentucky’s fiscal foundation.”

Representatives of several state universities declined to comment.

Bevin originally ordered 4.5 percent mid-year cuts to higher education, but he later reduced that to 2 percent. Public universities also face 4.5 percent cuts in the next two years of the state budget. Bevin said the cuts are necessary to provide more funding to the state’s beleaguered public employee pension system.

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