- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Republican Gov. Matt Bevin released more than $23 million in state tax dollars to public colleges and universities one day before the Democratic Attorney General planned to take him to court over his authority to cut spending without legislative approval.

Last month, Bevin cut state spending by $41 million for colleges and universities through June 30. He wants to begin saving that money to pay down the state’s massive pension debt, estimated at more than $30 billion. Tuesday, he revised that reduction to $17.8 million for most public colleges and universities. He completely restored funding to Kentucky State University.

The revised spending cuts amount to 2 percent of what the state legislature sends to public colleges and universities every year. The total budgets for public colleges and universities, which also include tuition, fees and federal dollars, is more than $6.6 billion, not including Kentucky State University. The spending cuts Bevin ordered amount to less than half of 1 percent of the institutions’ total budgets.

But most of that money is restricted, meaning colleges and universities can only spend it on certain things. College presidents say that’s why it is difficult to compensate for any cuts in state spending.

The state legislature did not include Bevin’s mid-year spending cuts in the two-year operating budget it approved last week. But Bevin ordered the spending cuts anyway. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear sued him, arguing that the cuts were illegal. A hearing on the case is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday.

On Wednesday, Beshear said he was pleased that “the pressure of our lawsuit” had convinced Bevin to reduce the spending cuts. However, he said “the governor’s unilateral cuts are still illegal.”

“The constitution does not allow such power in order to protect our liberty,” he said.

Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Bevin revised the cuts as a result “of a compromise agreement between the governor, legislative leadership and university presidents.”

“This frivolous lawsuit has no bearing on the governor’s decision to uphold that agreement,” Ditto said.

College and university presidents wrote a letter to Bevin saying they agreed to the 2 percent cuts “if it is determined by the courts to be permissible.”

In court filings, Beshear said Bevin ordered the cuts “by executive fiat” and argued it was his job to force Bevin to uphold the law.

“If this directive were left to stand, Governor Bevin could and would repeat the behavior,” Beshear argued in court documents. “Under his theory, he could sign a budget bill into law on one day, yet decide to withhold funds from any expenditure he disliked the very next day.”

Bevin, through his attorneys, has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. He said Beshear, “in his headlong rush to sue the governor,” has sued too early. Bevin’s attorney Stephen Pitt said Bevin could restore the cuts at any time between now and June 30, using the most recent reduction as an example.

Pitt also argued that the legislature’s job is to appropriate money, and the governor’s job is to spend the money. There is no state law declaring Bevin must spend all of the money, he said.

“(Beshear) would tell all executive branch agencies that they must find some way to get rid of every penny appropriated to them, whether they pile it up in a field and set it on fire or spend it on needless trinkets,” Pitt wrote. “This is obviously not the law. Nor should it be.”

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