KY Supreme Court: Bevin’s higher ed cuts are illegal


FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ/AP) – 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.
Last spring when Governor Matt Bevin abruptly cut the budgets of state colleges and universities, Attorney General Andy Beshear sued saying the governor didn’t have the legal authority to do that and the state Supreme Court agrees.

The 5-2 ruling by the state Supreme Court reverses a lower court ruling that said Gov. Matt Bevin had the authority 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 on Thursday, saying Bevin does not have that authority.

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The ruling is a victory for Beshear, who has sued Bevin three times so far questioning the extent of the governor’s power. Just last month, Bevin boasted on a Louisville radio show that Beshear “will lose every one of these cases.”

Beshear has released a statement on the ruling, saying, “Today, the Supreme Court enforced Kentucky law, reminding us that “the governor, like everyone, is bound by the law.” 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.”

Governor Bevin’s press secretary responded with this statement:

“We are disappointed in the Court’s decision today and strongly disagree with its reasoning. 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.

“Today’s ruling only affects $18 million of the universities’ overall budgets which is 0.0027 of their annual $6.6 billion expenditures. Nonetheless, we have to be vigilant about every taxpayer dollar spent if we are going to solve our pension crisis.

“The Commonwealth’s public universities have thousands of employees who participate in our pension system and, having such a large stake, should be part of the solution to fix the state’s $35 billion underfunded pension liability. Gov. Bevin recognizes that preserving our retirement systems for state workers and retirees is both a legal and moral obligation.

“We remain determined to fix Kentucky’s pension crisis, no matter the opposition. This administration will continue to use every available tool to solve our pressing financial problem.”

A Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled that the $18 million in question would be held in a special bank account and not spent while the case played out in court. Beshear explained Governor Bevin could authorize that money to go to the schools immediately; otherwise it has to go through proper procedures and wait for an order from the Circuit Court judge.

Schools will receive a one-time payment. According to a release from the Attorney General’s office, here is a breakdown of how much each school will now receive:

Eastern Kentucky University $1,360,700
Kentucky State University n/a
Morehead State University $866,800
Murray State University $960,500
Northern Kentucky University $970,800
University of Kentucky $5,592,200
University of Louisville $2,781,500
Western Kentucky University $1,493,000
KCTCS $3,803,200

Kentucky State University was excluded from all cuts due to pre-existing budget concerns.

“Mid-year reductions to our budget are extremely difficult to manage. The Supreme Court’s ruling today provides all the state’s universities a greater sense of certainty in our budget planning process as we all move forward. The funds that will be returned to the University of Kentucky, about $5.6 million, will be included in our focus on student success initiatives, particularly in the areas of retention and graduation rates,” said Eric Monday, Executive Vice President for Finance & Administration at the University of Kentucky.

“The Kentucky Supreme Court ruling adds certainty to the budgeting process and allows us to better plan for meeting the needs of our current and future students. The $1.3 million that will be returned to EKU is a one-time payment, and non-recurring funds sequestered through this process. This adjustment to the 2015-16 budget was bridged through contingency funds, and EKU’s intention is to return these funds to our contingency.

“EKU will continue to look at ways to address recurring budget needs without sacrificing our mission to provide a quality education and student experience for the nearly 17,000 students we serve. The Commonwealth as a whole benefits from state support of our public institution,” a spokesperson for EKU released.

“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. The court’s opinion strongly re-confirms the legislature’s spending authority as the constitution’s framers intended, and it gives our public postsecondary schools and our college students the money they should have had all along. While I am certainly pleased about the overall ruling, I am worried about the effect it will have on legislative standing in future cases. I think legislators should have the right to join cases where constitutional matters are in question,” said Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo. “This case really wasn’t about winning or losing. It was about clarifying the law, and I think the Supreme Court made the right decision according to law.”

Governor Bevin has 20 days to ask for a rehearing. His office says attorneys are still reviewing the opinion.