FRANKFORT, Ky. (WKYT/AP) - Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear on Monday said he has sued Gov. Matt Bevin for overstepping his authority when he ordered budget cuts for state colleges and universities without legislative approval.
The Republican governor has proposed $650 million in state spending cuts over the next two years as part of a plan to begin paying down the state's public pension debt, estimated at more than $30 billion. Part of that plan included budget reductions of 4.5 percent, or $41 million, for the state's colleges and universities in the last three months of the fiscal year.
State lawmakers rejected that plan.
But Bevin cut their budgets anyway, and Beshear gave Bevin seven days to rescind his order. Bevin ignored him.
During Monday's news conference, Beshear announced he had filed a lawsuit. The attorney general said that when he took his oath of office on Jan. 4, he takes the "responsibility to the constitution, to the law and to the people of Kentucky very seriously."
"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," he said. "That is my duty. And that is why today I'm announcing that I have filed suit against Governor Bevin for his unconstitutional and illegal order cutting Kentucky's public universities and colleges in this fiscal year."
Midway through Beshear's news conference, Bevin's spokeswoman issued the following statement:
“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. 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.”
Beshear said he had hoped Bevin would rescind his order, but he never did. Beshear said this was not "political," "Bevin versus Beshear" or "pensions versus higher education."
"And it's not personal. 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," he said.
Beshear said the governor violated a number of statutes and requirements in order to enact such a reduction, including the state's budget reduction plan, which outlines the order in which reductions must be made if a shortfall exists.
“Under his view, a budget is merely a suggestion and the legislature is merely an advisory body,” Beshear said. "Based on my oath, I cannot let such blatant violations of the constitution and Kentucky law stand unchallenged."
The attorney general said Bevin knew exactly what he was doing when he ordered the cuts. He said the governor took a completely different approach when he ordered a $112.5 million reduction in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's budget to offset a shortfall in revenue for the road fund. In that case, Bevin issued an executive order that said a 5.6 percent decrease in the cabinet's budget was necessary to "prevent a deficit" in the state's finances.
Beshear said that in that order, dated Jan. 4, Bevin "admitted that this is where his authority comes from" -- when the actual budget is passed into law.
"Put simply, these actions against universities are illegal," he said. "The state's in the same position as every Kentucky family is in every year. Every Kentucky family wishes they had a little more money to put toward a priority, but we would never suggest that a family take an illegal act to create that money to put toward that priority. The same rules apply to the state. The same rules apply to this governor."
University cuts have been a sticking point for Kentucky lawmakers trying to reach a budget deal. Lawmakers were hoping come to an agreement during a meeting Sunday, which would have made the proposal ready for a vote by the full House and Senate on Tuesday.
Tuesday is the last scheduled day for the 2016 legislative session, but lawmakers could push that back until Friday and continue meeting so they can reach a compromise.
When asked whether he should just wait until next week, after it is clear whether lawmakers can agree to a budget, Beshear said waiting was not the right thing to do.
"Regardless, the order -- as it's been put out -- was illegal; and was illegal on the day they put it out," he said. "And for me not to do my duty to challenge an illegal action when it occurs because something might change, isn't the right thing to do."
Beshear added that if the governor "thinks he has the power" to take this action, he could use it to eliminate funding to K-12, state police or other entities "at any time and for any reason."
That means he could do the same thing after the budget is passed.
"The only way to resolve this issue is for the court not only to declare this order illegal, but also that the governor does not have this power -- or for the governor to agree in a settlement that he does not have this power and he would not do it again," Beshear said.
A hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning in Franklin County.