A day after Republican Gov. Matt Bevin issued an order cutting the state’s current contribution to higher education by 4.5 percent, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said that move is illegal.
In a news conference late Friday afternoon, Beshear — the state’s top law enforcement official — told Bevin to rescind his order, which made the cuts to state colleges and universities. He said if the governor did not do so within seven days, his office would file suit.
“That is the exact type of power our democracy, our constitution, our liberty explicitly forbids,” Beshear said.
In a letter reducing the appropriation to higher education, Bevin cited a state law he said gives him the authority to make the cuts. The law forbids “allotments in excess of the amount appropriated to that budget unit in a branch budget bill” but says nothing about reduced appropriations.
Beshear said the law would only allow Bevin the authority to unilaterally order cuts if the state were facing a revenue shortfall, which it is not. He said a legal opinion on the matter is forthcoming.
Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, denied that the effort is political. The former governor and Bevin have for weeks been battling publicly over the future of the state’s health care exchange, Kynect, which the former governor established and the current governor plans to dismantle.
“This is not about any Bevin vs. Beshear,” he said. “It’s about the law. It’s about what the constitution requires. It’s about how the constitution protects our liberty.”
Jessica Ditto, a spokeswoman for Bevin, said the administration is “confident” in its decision.
“Today’s threatened actions by the Attorney General are premature,” she said via email. “We must wait and see what legislative action occurs on the budget before a final determination is made regarding budget allotments. We appreciate the university presidents who recognize our financial obligations to solve our $35 billion pension crisis.”
Beshear’s news conference came hours after House Speaker Greg Stumbo, also a Democrat, raised questions about the legality of Bevin’s cuts.
“If his revenues are sufficient and there’s no shortfall, then the appropriation that the General Assembly made to those entities I believe has to be followed,” he said.
The cuts will affect state university and community college budgets during the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.
On Friday morning, Bevin issued a statement saying the reductions are necessary so the state can dedicate more funding to the ailing pension systems, which are estimated to have $35 billion in unfunded obligations.
“I appreciate our university presidents who recognize the magnitude of this challenge and are willing to participate and contribute to the solution,” Bevin said. “Once we get our fiscal house in order, Kentucky will be in a much stronger position to make additional investments in higher education.”
The Kentucky Community and Technical College System said the reductions would be detrimental.
“With three-fourths of the current budget year completed, it would be impossible for the colleges and other KCTCS operating units to balance their budgets without having access to emergency funds,” said President Jay Box. “These deep cuts on top of the cuts received over the last seven years, and a tuition shortfall due to declining enrollment, mean people will lose jobs and programs will be eliminated.”
Responses from state universities were more muted.
University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said the school has been preparing for the cuts since Bevin announced impending reductions at his budget address January.
“We will be working over the next few months to implement this reduction within the context of our current-year budget. It is too early to speculate on the specific measures we will take,” he said.
A statement issued by the University of Louisville said that the institution “understands the critical issue” and would respond to the cuts “as we have responded to the 14 budget cuts over the past decade.”
“Our employees are disappointed with this news, but we will work to galvanize support for developing new fund sources that assure our faculty, students and staff have the resources to achieve our strategic goals,” the statement reads.
A statement from Eastern Kentucky University says the cuts would equate to about $3.1 million in reductions, which would be met by cutting spending and tapping reserves.
“These adjustments have been made with as little impact as possible to our top priority, our students,” EKU spokeswoman Kristi Runyon Middleton said in an email. “However, if we face continued cuts on top of the repeated decreases in funding that universities have seen the last eight years, it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to meet these challenges without affecting our students.”
Gary Ransdell, president of Western Kentucky University, said the school would have to come up with a plan to meet the reductions.
“Our budget is complex and nearly two-thirds personnel,” he said. “We will likely have to tap some of our reserve funds to manage a $3.5 million reduction at this late date in the fiscal year, but we will make those decisions in the next few days.”