A lawsuit challenging the Kentucky governor’s budget vetoes could hinge on the locked door of the House clerk’s office.
Kentucky’s Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo has asked a judge to overturn Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s vetoes of the state’s two year, $68 billion operating budget because he said Bevin didn’t file the original veto messages with the Secretary of State’s office. But Bevin says he didn’t file the originals because House Clerk Jean Burgin had locked them in her office on Stumbo’s orders.
Wednesday, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd delayed ruling on whether Burgin’s testimony and actions would be admissible in court. He said it was too early to make such a ruling since both sides are still gathering evidence and preparing for the case. At stake is millions of dollars in state funding that Bevin rejected, including $9.4 million for community college scholarships for Kentucky high school students in the fall.
It was one of two court hearings Wednesday involving lawsuits against Bevin, who has been a magnet for litigation in his first six months in office. In a separate hearing, labor unions argued Bevin’s order abolishing the Workers Compensation Nominating Commission was illegal and a judge should overturn it. Bevin re-created the commission, but with mostly new people and new rules governing it.
It’s a tactic Bevin has used several times with other boards and commissions. A ruling in this case could have repercussions for the University of Louisville and the Kentucky Retirement Systems, whose boards of trustees have been abolished and reorganized by Bevin. Those orders have also been challenged in court.
In the veto case, Bevin said he filed the original veto messages with Burgin on April 27, the last day he could legally issue vetoes to the state budget. Officials in Bevin’s office say Burgin promised them she would file the vetoes with the Secretary of State. But when she did not, they found Burgin had left for the day and locked the vetoes in her office. Stumbo said the clerk left for the day at around 4:30 p.m., when the office normally closes. He said he gave her permission to leave because she had an appointment.
Wednesday, Stumbo’s attorney Matt Stephens asked Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd to exclude any evidence of what Burgin said or did, saying it’s not relevant to the case. He said it’s the governor’s responsibility to file his veto messages with the Secretary of State, not the clerk. Burgin’s attorney, Anna Whites, agreed.
“It is not the duty of House clerk to assume the governor’s job,” Whites said.
According to Pitt, Burgin called the governor’s several times April 27, asking if the vetoes were ready. Pitt said Bevin filed his veto messages for House bills with Burgin and for Senate bills with the Senate clerk. Pitt said both clerks promised to deliver the vetoes to the Secretary of State’s office. The clerk of the Republican-controlled state Senate did deliver the veto messages, Pitt said, but the clerk of the Democrat-controlled House did not.
Pitt said nothing in the constitution requires the governor to file an original document instead of a copy. And he said Burgin’s testimony is key to their defense strategy of showing Stumbo and the rest of House leadership acted unethically.
“It’s the Speaker’s unclean hands here in instructing the House Clerk not to fulfill her commitment to take the veto messages to the Secretary of State,” Pitt said.
Shepherd indicated Burgin’s testimony likely won’t have much weight in the case, saying the case would likely be decided based on questions of law, not questions of fact.