Politics & Government

Supreme Court grants Beshear’s request for hearing on budget cuts

The Kentucky Supreme Court on Monday unanimously granted Attorney General Andy Beshear’s request for an expedited hearing on the legality of midyear university budget cuts imposed by Gov. Matt Bevin.

Bevin had argued last week that there was no need to rush the case and that it should first be heard by the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

In a two-page order, the state’s highest court granted a request by Beshear and three Democratic state representatives from Louisville — Jim Wayne, Mary Lou Marzian and Darryl Owens — to bypass the appellate court and made a schedule for an expedited hearing.

The Supreme Court gave Beshear and the legislators until July 17 to file briefs. The Bevin administration has until Aug. 7 to answer. Beshear and lawmakers must reply by Aug. 12. Oral arguments will be held 10 a.m. Aug. 18 in the Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol. Each side will get 15 minutes to present its case.

“Today’s ruling will ensure Kentucky’s students and their families a quick and final decision concerning what I believe to be illegal and unconstitutional cuts to higher education,” Beshear said in a statement. “It is my hope that, if we prevail, the funds will be used to offset the increases in tuition that schools are passing to deal with Gov. Bevin’s massive education cuts.”

Bevin press secretary Amanda Stamper said the governor is confident that the Supreme Court will agree with the Franklin Circuit Court’s ruling that the governor has authority to make the cuts “and that the attorney general’s argument to the contrary is both an irresponsible one and an unsustainable one for a government to take.”

The three legislators applauded the court order.

“Our Constitution assigns us the duty to use tax dollars where they are most needed,” Wayne said. “The stroke of one man’s pen can’t change this. I am pleased that the court is taking this case up.”

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate ruled in May that Bevin, a Republican, has legal authority to make 2 percent midyear cuts to the state’s public universities and colleges.

Beshear, a Democrat, 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 then filed an appeal to have the case transferred directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court, bypassing the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

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

He said the money in question — about $18 million — was appropriated by the General Assembly as part of the 2015-16 budget, which expires June 30.

“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,” he wrote. “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 initially 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.

The high court gave the administration more time and it took it.

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