It’s not every day that a state’s top prosecutor takes legal action against the state’s governor, which makes what’s happening in Kentucky so interesting.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) has filed a lawsuit to stop Gov. Matt Bevin (R) from slashing the budgets of the state’s public colleges and universities. Beshear says the governor violated state laws governing budget reductions when he imposed a $41 million, or 4.5 percent, spending cut in the last three months of the fiscal year.
“As attorney general, it is my job to make sure that no public official acts outside of his or her authority, regardless of position and regardless of party,” Beshear said at a news conference Monday.
Beshear is asking the courts to block Bevin’s cuts and release funding earmarked for each of the eight universities and 16 community colleges. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Bevin has proposed $650 million in budget reductions over the next two years to pay down the state’s public pension debt of more than $30 billion. He wanted the legislature to kick off the plan with across-the-board cuts to the university system. Although state legislators rejected the proposal, Bevin forged ahead. The attorney general gave the governor a week to revoke the executive order, but Bevin held his ground.
“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,” Jessica Ditto, a spokesperson for Bevin, said in a statement. “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.”
The comment alludes to the bribery charges brought last month against Beshear’s former deputy attorney general, Tim Longmeyer, who also served as personnel secretary for former governor Steve Beshear, the attorney general’s father.
During Beshear’s news conference, the attorney general said his decision to sue Bevin was not politically motivated or personal, despite them being of opposing parties. Beshear contends that the governor can only make cuts if there is a revenue shortfall. The legislature, he said, has exclusive power over the budget.
“No governor has the power to do what this governor has done, and I would sue any governor who did this, whether Democratic or Republican,” Beshear said. “Under his view, a budget is merely a suggestion and the legislature is merely an advisory body. I cannot let such blatant violations of the constitution and Kentucky law stand unchallenged.”
As in many states, Kentucky’s spending on higher education has fallen over the years, even as enrollment climbed. Whereas state appropriations covered nearly two-thirds of the money schools needed to educate college students 20 years ago, it now covers roughly half, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
Despite the budget pressures, Kentucky universities have maintained stable credit ratings. The state’s flagship, the University of Kentucky, boasts healthy enrollment and tuition revenue, according to Moody’s Investors Service. School spokesman Jay Blanton said it’s too early to determine the full impact of the the governors cuts.
“We’ve got out budget folks and academic officials doing an analysis right now,” he said. “It’s a nonrecurring cut, so it’s not going to impact tuition or financial aid.”
At Eastern Kentucky University, officials have cut spending and tapped the school’s reserves to offset the $3.1 million in cuts, according to Kristi Middleton, a spokeswoman for the school. She said the adjustments have had little impact on students, but have “eaten up” Eastern’s institutional reserves.
“We recognize the formidable task of funding the state pension system,” Middleton said. “However, we hope our commonwealth will find a way in the future to increase the investment in higher education to benefit the hundreds of thousands of students preparing for their future careers at Kentucky’s public institutions.”
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