By Jack Brammer
Attorney General Andy Beshear filed a lawsuit Monday in Franklin Circuit Court challenging Gov. Matt Bevin's authority to cut the budgets of Kentucky's public colleges and universities without legislative approval.
Beshear contends that Bevin's March 31 decision to implement a 4.5 percent spending cut for universities in the current fiscal year violates Kentucky's constitutional provision for separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of state government.
The state's chief law enforcement official also said during a Capitol news conference that Bevin's actions violated numerous state laws governing budget reductions and that he would ask the courts for an expedited hearing to force the release of withheld appropriations to each university.
Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate is to hold a hearing on Beshear's request for a temporary injunction to block Bevin's cuts at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Bevin, a Republican who took office in December, responded with harsh criticism of Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear.
"As best we can make sense of his rambling press conference, we strongly disagree with the attorney general and will respond as necessary in court," said Jessica Ditto, a spokeswoman for Bevin. "Given the amount of alleged corruption and personnel problems in the office of attorney general and his father's administration, it is clear that he is attempting to deflect attention away from his own challenges."
That is an apparent reference to Beshear's former deputy attorney general Tim Longmeyer, who was charged with bribery last month in federal court for allegedly taking more than $200,000 in kickbacks to steer business to a consulting company and making illegal contributions to political candidates. Longmeyer was personnel secretary in Steve Beshear's administration. U.S. Attorney Steve Harvey has said the allegations against Longmeyer relate only to his former job, and no one in Andy Beshear's office is a target of the investigation.
Beshear said he was not filing the lawsuit against Bevin willingly, but must do so to challenge the governor's view of the law.
"Under his view, a budget is merely a suggestion and the legislature is merely an advisory body," Beshear said.
He said the governor could use the same rationale to make any cuts to a budget, including funds to pay for public schools, state police or state prosecutors. Beshear contends that the legislature has exclusive authority over the budget and that a governor cannot make any cuts unless there is a declared shortfall in revenue.
Bevin has said the cuts are legal and needed to help fund the state's financially strapped pension programs, which has an unfunded liability of more than $30 billion.
Beshear said he was surprised that Bevin cut higher education. He said education is not a privilege but a necessity for the state's economic survival, an apparent rebuttal of recent comments by Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton.
The Eastern Progress, the student newspaper at Eastern Kentucky University, reported that Hampton called higher education a "privilege" and "not a right."
"I would not be studying history," Hampton said, suggesting that students should focus on education programs that produce jobs.
Beshear also took issue with Bevin's focus on public pensions as the state's biggest problem. He said it was an epidemic of drug abuse in the state.
Beshear said he would drop his lawsuit only if Bevin rescinded his order for the cuts and agreed not to reduce university spending after a budget is signed.
House and Senate budget negotiators resumed their work Monday afternoon after reaching a stalemate late Sunday. They hope to produce a $21 billion, two-year budget by Wednesday night so the entire legislature may vote on it Friday, the last day of this year's law-making session.
Last Friday, seven of Kentucky's eight university presidents reluctantly told Bevin they could manage "the governor's final offer" of a 2 percent cut in the ongoing fiscal year "if it is determined by the courts to be permissible" and a 4.5 percent cut in the following two years.
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