Politics

The Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments on Thursday over a challenge to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s mid-year cuts to state colleges and universities.

In March of this year, Bevin issued an executive order reducing the amount allotted to higher education for the final quarter of this fiscal year by about 2 percent.

The reduction has been challenged by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear and three Democratic state representatives, who argue that Bevin has thwarted the legislature’s power over budget decisions.

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate ruled in favor of the governor in May and the state Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the case.

Steve Pitt, general counsel for the governor, argued Thursday that in general, the governor can unilaterally make spending cuts to state universities and other agencies but the courts can step in if they think the cuts amount to an “abuse of discretion.”

“The courts can step in and stop that,” Pitt said. “That’s why this is not a separation of powers issue. The court always has the power to step in and say ‘hey, you’ve gone too far.’”

Pitt said that the judicial branch would have to determine whether spending reductions “cut into the core function” of the institution in question.

In the specific case of Bevin’s cuts to higher education spending, Pitt said that the reductions wouldn’t affect Kentucky’s eight state colleges and universities from fulfilling their core functions.

“It has a negligible, if any, effect,” Pitt said.

Bevin’s cuts were directed at spending set out in the two-year budget passed by the legislature in 2014.

The governor’s office argues that the budget passed by the legislature sets a “ceiling” (meaning state agencies can’t spend more than the amount set aside for them), but there is no limit on how much the governor can cut unless the courts step in.

Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller questioned what would happen if there was no limit on how much the governor could cut.

“I mean in this situation, there’s been a lot written that it’s only been 2 percent and we’re all pitching in to help fund the pensions, but what if the governor had exercised his revision to the tune of 10 or 20 or 40 or 50 percent? Then the universities couldn’t turn on the lights,” Keller said.

Justice Mary Noble questioned whether it would be appropriate for the judicial branch to weigh in on whether unilateral spending reductions made by the governor would be harmful.

“We judges tend to think highly of ourselves, but I’m pretty certain we would not want to micromanage universities’ budgets, and look at the type of proof you’re suggesting would be necessary,” Noble said.

Attorney General Beshear argued that even if the cuts were negligible, Bevin can’t make them without the legislature’s authority.

“An illegal act is an illegal act,” Beshear said. “And in the commonwealth of Kentucky when there is not a budget deficit, the governor does not have the power to cut.”

Bevin’s 2 percent cuts add up to about $18 million, which has been set aside until the lawsuit is resolved.

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