FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky’s two top elected officials took their feud to the state’s highest court on Thursday in a dispute over university funding that tests the limits of executive power while offering a possible preview of the 2019 governor’s race.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear both appeared before the state Supreme Court on Thursday in the first of several likely public showdowns in coming months. At stake is $17.8 million for most of the state’s public colleges and universities and political points for two men who could end up battling each other for the governor’s mansion in 2019.
“This is certainly very much a precedent-setting case,” Justice Lisabeth Hughes said.
The case is one of several disputes in a long-running feud between Bevin and Beshear, a Democrat who also has sued the governor for replacing the boards at the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the University of Louisville. Those cases also are likely to reach the state’s highest court. Beshear is the son of Democratic former Gov. Steve Beshear, who was succeeded by Bevin in December.
After taking office, Bevin proposed budget cuts of 4.5 percent for every state agency. He justified cuts as necessary to grapple with a public pension debt of more than $35 billion. The state legislature approved the cuts for the next two years, but didn’t approve cuts for the current year.
But Bevin, through an executive order, made the cuts anyway. He later reduced them to 2 percent, or $17.8 million as part of an agreement reached with university presidents at a private meeting at the Governor’s Mansion. But Beshear and some Democratic members of the state legislature called Bevin’s order illegal, saying only the state legislature could control how much money was given to state agencies.
Universities receive state funding in quarterly allotments. Bevin is relying on a state law that says the governor can revise the allotment schedule. In turn, Beshear is relying on a law that says the state treasurer “shall” pay colleges and universities all of the money appropriated by the state legislature.
The Supreme Court will decide who is right.
Through his attorneys, Bevin said he didn’t take money away from the institutions, he just ordered them not to spend all of the money they had. In May, a state judge agreed with Bevin, and chastised Beshear’s position as “irresponsible” and “unsustainable.”
But on Thursday, the seven Supreme Court justices had few questions for Beshear. Instead, they spent more than 30 minutes questioning Bevin’s decision, with some suggesting he was trying to micromanage the spending of public universities that are supposedly run by an independent board.
Steve Pitt, Bevin’s attorney, said Bevin’s order would have been illegal if the cut had been so much so that it prevented the colleges and universities from functioning. But a 2 percent cut, he said, was negligible.
Some justices seemed to struggle with that argument, with Justice Lisabeth Hughes asking: “When is it too much?”
Hughes also said reducing the allotments for state colleges and universities was the same as cutting their appropriation.
“The legislature’s judgment has been, for lack of a better word, I guess, thwarted,” she said.
Other justices wondered why the courts needed to be involved at all.
“Does (the legislature) need the judiciary to fix this, when they can simply meet as a body at its next occasion and cure the problem?” Justice Daniel Venters said.
Bevin, speaking to WHAS radio on Wednesday, was confident he would win all of the lawsuits brought by Beshear.
“(Beshear) will lose every one of these cases,” Bevin told radio host Terry Meiners. “There is nothing that I have done that I am not absolutely confident will be held up when it is taken to the Supreme Court.”
Beshear, who argued the case himself before the court, said Bevin’s arguments are “dangerous.”
“I believe at my core that constitutional provisions are being violated, that the separation of powers is being violated, that the governor is not faithfully executing his law under the constitution,” Beshear said. “I’m here because of my duty. It wouldn’t matter if this is a Democratic governor or a Republican governor, only that the governor violated the constitution.”