Politics & Government

Beshear appeals Bevin’s university cuts to Kentucky high court

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, left, and Gov. Matt Bevin.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, left, and Gov. Matt Bevin.

Attorney General Andy Beshear asked the Kentucky Supreme Court on Tuesday to consider as soon as possible his case against Gov. Matt Bevin’s midyear budget cuts to public universities and colleges.

In documents filed with the state’s highest court, Beshear said a ruling last week in Franklin Circuit Court that Bevin has legal authority to make the cuts “creates the ‘perfect storm’ of constitutional conflict.”

“If left to stand, it will eviscerate the strong separation of powers doctrine of the Kentucky Constitution and create untold constitutional conflicts in future appropriation cases,” Beshear wrote.

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate issued his opinion May 18, several weeks after Beshear and three Democratic House members from Louisville — Mary Lou Marzian, Darryl Owens and Jim Wayne — sued Bevin for ordering 2 percent midyear cuts to the state’s public universities.

Beshear argued that the governor could not make cuts in an already-enacted state budget unless there is a shortfall in state revenue.

The state’s chief law enforcement official said he would file an appeal and try to have the case transferred directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court, bypassing the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

In an email Tuesday, Bevin’s press secretary, Amanda Stamper, said the governor is confident the state’s appellate courts will uphold Wingate’s ruling, in which the judge said Beshear’s position was “both an irresponsible one and an unsustainable one for a government to take.”

“We look forward to an expedient resolution, and will be happy to put this politically motivated lawsuit behind us as we continue to strengthen Kentucky’s fiscal foundation,” Stamper said.

Besides making a motion to transfer the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court, Beshear asked the court “to advance its consideration” of his request.

He said the case raises fundamental questions regarding the separation of powers and the governor’s duty to faithfully execute the law.

Beshear said the money in question — about $18 million — was appropriated by the General Assembly as part of the 2015-16 budget.

“The public interest will be served by an expeditious resolution to this case as it involves the bedrock principles of our democracy, as well as millions of taxpayers’ dollars,” Beshear wrote.

“The universities are currently determining how to adjust to this withholding, and this illegal act should be rectified as soon as possible. The current fiscal year is coming to a close at the end of June, and the universities need these funds to plan and maintain important educational activities.”

Beshear asked that the Bevin administration have 10 days — until June 2 — to respond to his request and for an expedited briefing schedule to review the case.

Bevin has said the cuts are necessary to provide more funding to the state’s beleaguered public employee pension system.

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.

Jack Brammer: 502-227-1198, @BGPolitics