- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has agreed not to spend nearly $18 million in public money until the courts decide who has the authority to spend it.

All but one of Kentucky’s public colleges and universities were supposed to get a combined $178.5 million from the state on April 1. But Bevin kept $17.8 million of that money. He wants to save the money so the state can spend it on its growing public pension debt, estimated at more than $30 billion.

Kentucky State University, in the midst of a budget crisis, was not included in the cuts.

Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s Democratic Attorney general, says Bevin can’t take the money because the Legislature has already given the colleges and universities permission to spend it. He sued Bevin, and Thursday the two sides argued their case before a state judge for the first time.

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate said Thursday he wants to have at least one more hearing before he decides. But he said he would order the disputed money to be placed in a separate fund and not touched until after the lawsuit is resolved. Attorneys on both sides agreed to the order. Ultimately, Wingate said the case would have to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

The case is a test of Bevin’s power, both procedural and political. Democrats have controlled Kentucky’s state government for decades. But now Republicans have a large majority in the state Senate and four out of the six statewide elected officers, including the governor’s office for just the second time in more than 40 years.

Democrats, who have a slim majority in the state House of Representatives, have tried to thwart many of Bevin’s policy goals. Three Democratic state representatives are trying to join Beshear’s lawsuit, although Wingate said Thursday he was leaning toward denying their request.

Much of the discussion Thursday focused on a state law that says payments “may be revised upon the written certification of the governor,” except the governor cannot increase spending more than the Legislature had approved. Stephen Pitt, Bevin’s attorney, says the law clearly gives the governor the authority to not spend the entire allotment.

“It’s absurd to think every dollar appropriated has to be spent. We need to get away from that thinking,” Pitt said.

Beshear, who attended the hearing, did not make a counter argument. But he told reporters after the hearing the law only gives the governor authority to revise the payment schedule, not the amount of the payments. If Bevin wins, Beshear said it would mean the governor could decide how much money state agencies can spend.

“It violates our liberty. It would mean he could defund the state police just because he felt like it,” Beshear said.

Wingate also questioned why the colleges and universities have not joined Beshear’s lawsuit. All but one of the college presidents agreed to Bevin’s budget cuts during a private meeting at the Governor’s Mansion earlier this month, but only “if it is determined by the courts to be permissible.”

Pitt argued if the college and university presidents agreed to the cuts, the lawsuit should be dismissed. Beshear disagreed.

“I have a concern that university presidents were in a position to make any real agreement with someone who ultimately has to approve virtually every agency contract that they have along with appoints their trustees,” Beshear said. “There is a tremendous amount of pressure there.”

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