Judge: Lawsuit between Kentucky political rivals can go on

Posted at 4:37 PM, Aug 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-09 18:25:51-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A lawsuit by Kentucky’s Democratic attorney general against the Republican governor can go forward, a judge ruled Wednesday in the first of two cases reaching court this month that could shape the state’s future in politics and policy.

Attorney General Andy Beshear has sued Gov. Matt Bevin over his executive order overhauling several state boards that oversee public education. Bevin’s attorneys asked Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate on Wednesday to dismiss the lawsuit, but Wingate said he intends to rule on its merits after giving both sides more time to craft their arguments.

Next week, the two sides go before the state Supreme Court to argue over whether Bevin has the authority to abolish and replace boards of trustees at public universities, specifically the University of Louisville. A spokesman said Beshear plans to personally argue that case.

Beshear has sued Bevin four times since taking office last year. The lawsuits have extra weight since Beshear could challenge Bevin for re-election in 2019. Beshear spent last weekend criticizing Bevin at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, a traditional testing ground for statewide campaigns, accusing him of failing as a governor and using social media to attack “whoever angered him over his Cocoa Puffs this morning.”

The governor, meanwhile, told WHAS radio that “odds are high” he will seek re-election, and he would welcome a challenge from Beshear.

“It would be my dream,” Bevin said. “He’s not even competent as Attorney General. The idea of him running for a job with greater responsibility — it would be interesting to watch him try to make that case.”

If they do run against each other, the lawsuits could be front and center. Beshear won the first, when the state Supreme Court ruled Bevin was wrong to cut the budgets of public colleges and universities without the approval of the legislature. Bevin complied with the court’s order to return the money.

The other lawsuits are still pending and have focused on Bevin’s use of a state law allowing governors to make changes to state government when the legislature is not in session. Since taking office, Bevin has used the law to add or replace members on 37 state boards, and he plans to alter 39 more through executive orders.

Bevin has said his orders save money and increase efficiency. Beshear argues that Bevin is ignoring the law to consolidate power.

Beshear has sued Bevin twice before challenging his orders altering the boards of the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the University of Louisville. Now he’s asking the state’s highest court to strike down the entire law Bevin is using as unconstitutional, saying his changes amount to new laws, and only the legislature is empowered to create laws.

“Governor Bevin has exercised this authority in an unprecedented and abusive fashion,” Beshear’s office wrote the court. “Time is of the essence.”

Lawyers for Bevin say he is only using authority delegated by state lawmakers, under a law governors have used for decades to make temporary changes without having to call an expensive special session of the part-time legislature. The legislature reviews the changes when they reconvene each year. If they take no action, the changes expire. The governor can then issue a new executive order once the legislature adjourns.

Bevin, and his lawyers, say Beshear’s lawsuits are politically motivated, noting that Beshear has only challenged three of the 37 state boards Bevin has altered.

“Tellingly, he has only sued over the reorganizations that touch the most politically sensitive issues — i.e., education and the pension system,” Bevin’s attorneys wrote in court documents. “The fact that he picks and chooses which reorganizations to challenge suggests that he is just trying to score political points.”

Beshear responded by saying Bevin’s orders “have led to disastrous results,” including the University of Louisville being placed on probation by its accrediting body.