FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky’s Supreme Court has overridden the state’s Republican governor in a bitter dispute with the son of a Democrat who preceded him, ruling the state’s top executive cannot cut millions of dollars from public universities without legislative consent.
Thursday’s ruling by the state’s highest court further inflamed the political feud between Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear and could intensify elections across the state as both parties seek control of the House of Representatives in November.
The court ruled Bevin was wrong to override the state legislature and order more than $17 million in spending cuts at all but one of the state’s public colleges and universities, saying “the governor, like everyone, is bound by the law.”
Beshear, who has already sued Bevin three times in the 10 months they’ve both been in office, said he hoped Bevin would take the ruling as “a turning point” and “re-think the approach that he has been taking.”
That appeared unlikely as Bevin’s spokeswoman Amanda Stamper lashed out in a statement afterward against Beshear and his father, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear —furthering the acrimony between the political newcomer Bevin and one of Kentucky’s most powerful families.
“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.
Bevin and Beshear both took office in December, about one month before Bevin had to present his first spending proposal to the state legislature. After years of deficits, Kentucky was enjoying a budget surplus. But it also had an estimated debt of more than $35 billion spread across its public pension systems for state workers and public school teachers.
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 cuts for the current year.
Bevin made the cuts anyway, ordering allotments for public colleges and universities reduced by 2 percent, or $17.8 million under an agreement reached with several university presidents during a private meeting at the governor’s mansion.
All of the universities then approved tuition increases of up to 5 percent for the upcoming academic year, in part blaming the cuts.
Beshear sued. A lower court sided with Bevin, ruling he had the power to order the colleges not to spend all of the money the legislature gave them. Beshear appealed, saying the ruling was dangerous because it would give Bevin free rein to control billions of dollars of public money without the checks and balances of an elected legislature.
A majority of the court agreed.
“This is not to say that every penny appropriated must be spent,” Justice Mary C. Noble wrote for the majority. “But the Governor does not have the power to make that decision for the Universities.”
The ruling means Bevin will have to release a total of $17.8 million to all of the state’s public colleges and universities except Kentucky State University, whose budget wasn’t 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. But it is a significant victory for Beshear in his repeated run-ins with Bevin.
Beshear has filed three lawsuits so far challenging the extent of Bevin’s authority, including his decisions earlier this year to abolish and replace the boards for the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the University of Louisville.
After Thursday’s ruling, Beshear called for Bevin to immediately release the $17.8 million to the colleges and universities. And he asked the colleges and universities to return that money to the students as rebates on future tuition. The University of Louisville, which will get back nearly $2.8 million, said it would put the money back in its general operating budget “to fund student success initiatives.”
Stamper said no decisions will be made about the money until Bevin’s lawyers have finished reviewing the court’s decision.
The feud comes amid campaigns for control of the state House of Representatives, the last legislative chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo was quick to declare victory.
“I predict today’s decision is the first of what will be a series of Kentucky Supreme Court rulings against Governor Bevin’s illegal actions,” he said.