Judge will rule in lawsuit between Attorney General Beshear, Gov. Bevin "soon" after hearing Wednesday

05/04/2016 11:40 PM

FRANKFORT — Attorneys for Gov. Matt Bevin and Attorney General Andy Beshear gave their last arguments Wednesday before Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate renders a decision on Beshear’s lawsuit challenging current-year cuts totaling nearly $18 million to state colleges and universities.

Both sides reiterated their arguments from an April 21 hearing, during which they agreed to set aside the $17.8 million in cuts until the lawsuit’s resolution. Steve Pitt, Bevin’s general counsel, argued that state law gives the governor, chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court and Legislative Research Commission authority to reduce, but not increase, budget allotments within their branches of government while Beshear and his attorneys countered that such actions can only occur in revenue shortfalls.

Wingate, who has said he expects his decision will ultimately come before the state Supreme Court, gave no indication on exactly when an order might come, saying a decision will come “as soon as we can.” Beshear said he hoped for a decision within two weeks, and both he and Pitt were optimistic of their prospects.

At issue is Bevin’s call for 2 percent allotment reductions for postsecondary institutions, except for Kentucky State University, in the current fiscal year, which has been set aside until the lawsuit is resolved.

Pitt argued that if Bevin did not have authority to lessen budget allotments, the state’s House of Representatives would not have written language in its version of the upcoming two-year spending plan singling out the law on which the governor’s attorneys rely in their claims. The House plan prohibited lowering allotments for universities, among other state agencies, he said.

“It’s interesting that the very three intervening legislators in this case … all voted for House Bill 303 and voted for this language,” Pitt said. “They must have thought the governor had this type of power or they wouldn’t have ‘notwithstood’ it in this budget bill.”

Pierce Whites, an attorney for House Democratic leadership who’s representing a trio of Democratic representatives looking to intervene in the case, said the lower chamber included that language in anticipation of such action by Bevin, as the first-year governor laid out in his budget address in January. The governor’s decision undercuts the General Assembly’s appropriating authority, he said.

Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown argued that such budget language outlined by Pitt is included from time to time as a reminder for state officials.

“Sometimes we as humans, and particularly we as appointed or elected officials sometimes, you know, we’ve got to hear it again and again,” Brown said. “Sometimes from the public, sometimes from the courts, sometimes in the very law that’s presented, so they repeat things. They state things. They emphasize add, which is all that budget bill does.

“But it doesn’t change the underlying situation, which is you can’t reduce, revise a budget in action. You can’t change that appropriation unless you’re going to follow the very plan that’s set forth in the budget. The governor did not do that.”

Pitt said the judge’s ruling will not impact Bevin’s call for 4.5 percent cuts in the current fiscal year as reported by The State Journal.

“It’s certainly not part of this suit or any other suit that the governor can’t order secretaries who he appoints and are in cabinets under his direction to cut their budgets voluntarily,” Pitt said. “They do that voluntarily at the governor’s request because they want to do the right thing.”

Beshear contended, however, that the final decision will set a precedent for other such budget decisions.

“Our position — and we believe it’s already been decided by the Supreme Court — is the legislature decides what to spend and a governor can only reduce that if there is a budget shortfall and through the budget reduction plan,” he said. “Now, we believe that’s law, but if it is reaffirmed, it may impact other actions, decisions that may occur in the future, so I definitely think this case has broader implications than just the universities.”


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.