FRANKFORT, Ky. ― Kentucky’s highest court says the state’s Republican governor cannot cut the budgets of public colleges and universities without the approval of the state legislature.
The 5-2 ruling by the state Supreme Court on Thursday reverses a lower court ruling earlier this year that said Gov. Matt Bevin had the power to order public colleges and universities not to spend all of the money the state legislature gave them. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear appealed, arguing Bevin’s order was illegal. A majority of the court agreed.
“This is not to say that every penny appropriated must be spent. As the Governor points out, such a legal requirement would be fiscally irresponsible. And the budget bill itself recognizes this by authorizing the spending of appropriations ‘or so much thereof as may be necessary.’ But the Governor does not have the power to make that decision for the Universities,” Justice Mary C. Noble wrote for the majority.
The ruling means Bevin will have to release $17.8 million to all of the state’s public colleges and universities except Kentucky State University, whose budget was not cut. The money is not significant to the institutions, since it makes up less than half of 1 percent of their combined $6.6 billion budgets, which include tuition, fees and federal dollars.
But it is a significant victory for Beshear, who has clashed with Bevin repeatedly in the few months both men have been in office. Beshear has filed three lawsuits so far challenging the extent of Bevin’s authority, including his decisions to abolish and replace the boards for the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the University of Louisville. All of those cases are likely to wind up before the state Supreme Court.
Just last month, Bevin boasted on a Louisville radio show that Beshear “will lose every one of these cases.”
“Based on today’s ruling, I am calling on Gov. Bevin to immediately release the $18 million he wrongfully withheld from our public colleges and universities,” Beshear said. “I am also calling on the governor’s office to use today’s ruling as a turning point. It is time for him to stop attacking, and to instead join me in building a better Kentucky.”
In a news release, Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper said the governor was disappointed with the decision and that he strongly disagreed with its reasoning. Stamper did not say whether Bevin would release the money immediately.
“The Attorney General clearly does not understand the severity of the pension problem which became the nation’s worst funded plan under the watch of his father’s administration,” Stamper said, referring to former Gov. Steve Beshear ― Bevin’s predecessor and Andy Beshear’s father.
Bevin and Beshear both took office in December, about one month before Bevin had to present his first proposed spending plan to the state legislature. While Kentucky ended the fiscal year with a surplus, it has an estimated debt of more than $35 billion spread across its public pension systems for state workers and public school teachers. In his first months in office, Bevin called for budget cuts of 4.5 percent for most state agencies, including public colleges and universities. The state legislature approved the cuts for the next two years, but they refused to approve budget cuts for the current year.
Bevin made the cuts anyway, ordering the allotments for public colleges and universities reduced by 2 percent, or $17.8 million as part of an agreement reached with several university presidents during a private meeting at the governor’s mansion. Beshear sued calling Bevin’s cuts illegal. He said the cuts, if upheld, would give Bevin free reign to control billions of state spending without the checks and balances of the state legislature.
Justice Samuel T. Wright and Daniel J. Venters disagreed with the ruling, arguing Beshear should not have been allowed to sue Bevin in the first place.
“The majority has no express constitutional or direct statutory authority to support its conclusion that the Attorney General has standing to sue the chief executive to enjoin an executive action,” Venters wrote. “That notion is flat-out wrong.”