Politics

The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled that Gov. Matt Bevin does not have the authority to make mid-year cuts to state university budgets if the state isn’t experiencing a shortfall.

In a 5-2 ruling, the state’s high court declared that Bevin exceeded his authority by issuing an executive order cutting last fiscal year’s fourth quarter higher education allotment by $18 million.

“Whatever authority he might otherwise have to require a budget unit not to spend appropriated funds does not extend to the Universities, which the legislature has made independent bodies politic with control over their own expenditures,” the majority opinion stated.

The court reversed an earlier opinion by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate, which said that Bevin had authority to unilaterally cut the budgets of state colleges and universities because they are part of the state’s executive branch, which Bevin is the head of.

The opinion stated that Bevin does have the authority to make mid-year budget cuts if the state experiences a budget shortfall of 5 percent or more, however the commonwealth experienced a surplus last fiscal year.

“We are disappointed in the Court’s decision today and strongly disagree with its reasoning,” said Bevin’s press secretary Amanda Stamper in a statement. “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 that since public universities have thousands of employees in the state pension system, they “should be a 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,” Stamper said.

Bevin made the 2 percent mid-year cuts to higher education under the auspices of putting the money towards the state’s pension systems, which combined are the worst funded in the nation.

The ruling is a big win for Attorney General Andy Beshear, who sued Bevin over the cuts. On Thursday, Beshear released a statement calling on Bevin to immediately release the $18 million to public colleges and universities.

“It is time for him to stop attacking, and to instead join me in building a better Kentucky,” Beshear said in the statement. “I would hope that after today, the nasty press releases and name-calling stop, and the governor joins us for the real work that needs to be done to help Kentucky families.”

Bevin and Beshear have lobbed insults at each other over the course of this lawsuit and a handful of others making their way through the state’s court system.

Bevin has also tried to reorganize the governing board of one of the state pension systems and the board that manages the University of Louisville — Beshear is suing the governor over those actions as well.

The case will now be sent back to Franklin Circuit Court where Judge Wingate will have to honor the ruling in order to release the $18 million back to be divvied up among higher education institutions.

Once the $18 million is divvied up among the higher education institutions, University of Kentucky will get $5,592,200 and University of Louisville will get $2,781,500 (a full list can be found at the end of the story).

On Thursday, U of L issued the following statement:

“As we have always done, the University of Louisville will work with the dollars approved by the legislature and governor. However, it is important for our university to plan ahead and not have unexpected cuts in our funding. This ruling gives state universities some measure of stability in planning and funding. We expect to put the $2.78 million from last spring’s cut back into our operating budget to fund student success initiatives.”

Beshear said he’d like the universities to use the money in ways that mitigate budget cuts impact on to students and faculty. All of Kentucky’s higher education institutions voted to increase tuition for the coming academic year.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said that the decision would be the first in a “series” of rulings against the governor.

“The court’s opinion strongly re-confirms the legislature’s spending authority as the constitution’s framers intended, and it gives our public post-secondary schools and our college students the money they should have had all along,” Stumbo said.

In a dissent to Thursday’s ruling, Justice Daniel J. Venters wrote that Beshear didn’t have the standing to sue Bevin to block his executive action.

“That notion is flat-out wrong,” Venters wrote. “No attorney general in the entire common law history ever had that authority, and neither the majority opinion nor the Attorney General himself cites even a single common law precedent for such power.”

During this year’s budgeting process, the state’s appropriation to higher education institutions was cut by 4.5 percent over the next two years.

Here’s a breakdown of how much money each institution will receive once funds are released:

Eastern Kentucky University: $1,360,700
Kentucky State University: not included in budget cuts
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

This story has been updated. 

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.