- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - As part of his proposed budget cuts, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin exempted what he considered to be key government services. Those not protected include agencies charged with holding him and his administration accountable.

Katie Gabhart, the executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, said the proposed 4.5 percent budget cut this year and the 9 percent cut over the next two years will devastate the agency. She said it would force her to lay off the agency’s sole investigator and auditor, two employees who already work part time.

“We will be an investigative and auditing agency with no investigator and auditor,” Gabhart told House lawmakers this week. “Public servants are going to violate the ethics code … and if they know we have an ethics commission with so few resources that we can’t enforce the code, then what is the point of having one?”

The cuts also include the Registry of Election Finance, the agency that makes sure politicians follow the rules when they raise and spend money for their campaigns. Executive Director John Steffen said the agency could not sustain a 9 percent cut and would not be able to hire an auditor. In response, House lawmakers suggested changing state law so fewer candidates would have to file disclosure reports.

“I don’t know what statutory obligations can be changed and not render our entire agency meaningless,” Steffen said.

Bevin, in his first term after taking office in December, defended the cuts as necessary to help fix the state’s multibillion-dollar pension shortfalls for state workers, public school teachers, police and firefighters. The retirement system for public school teachers alone needs an additional $1 billion over the next two years.

Bevin said his cuts were not intended to undermine the commission’s ability to “hold our elected officials to the highest level of the law.” But he suggested Gabhart was using the cuts as a way to ask for more money, saying it was “kind of convenient” to cut the auditor and investigator.

“Really? I’m not so convinced that there is not ability, potentially, to find some change in someone else within that staff,” he said.

Gabhart invited Bevin to look at her budget and said staff was the only thing left for her to cut because she can’t cut fixed costs like rent, electricity and water.

“Water, I mean for toilets. Not drinking water. We buy that ourselves,” she said.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission was formed in the 1990s following an FBI bribery investigation that netted the indictments of 21 lawmakers and lobbyists. It has four full time employees: an executive director, general counsel, and administrative staff. Gabhart said most are required by statute.

Gabhart said she would have to conduct investigations herself.

“It appears to me we may just need to be developing more robots for Kentucky,” said Democratic state Rep. Rita Smart, the chairwoman of the subcommittee that oversees the agency’s budget.

The commission keeps watch over the governor and his administration, plus other executive branch offices including the attorney general and the secretary of state. The commission can issue reprimands and fines of up to $5,000. Its investigations often have led to criminal charges.

Since 1995, the commission has received 982 complaints and investigated 558 cases. It has collected more than $384,000 in fines. The money goes back into the general fund for lawmakers to spend.

The commission has fined executive branch employees for offenses including pressuring subordinates to make political donations, stealing public money from Kentuckians on government assistance programs and, in one instance, for a probation and parole officer using her influence to force a prosecutor to issue a fraudulent grand jury subpoena for her husband’s cellphone records.

The commission’s only source of revenue is the $125 registration fee lobbyists pay to lobby executive branch agencies. Bevin has proposed raising that fee to $199 over the next two years, but Gabhart said the fee would need to be $275 to stave off a deficit.

State lawmakers are vetting Bevin’s budget proposal.

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