- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky’s Republican governor has been sued again, the fourth time in his first six months in office, as he continues to test the limits of executive authority in the Bluegrass State.

The latest lawsuit, filed Friday, asks a judge to overturn Gov. Matt Bevin’s order removing and replacing Thomas Elliott, chairman of the state’s beleaguered retirement system, one of the worst funded public pension systems in the country. Bevin has since issued an executive order abolishing the retirement system board completely, replacing it with a new board with some new members.

Bevin has done the same thing with the Kentucky Horse Park Commission, the Kentucky Racing Commission, the Workers Compensation Nominating Commission and, last week, the University of Louisville board of trustees - an action that led university President James Ramsey to announce his resignation.

More lawsuits could be coming, as Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear called Bevin’s actions “unprecedented” and said he was reviewing them closely. But Bevin administration officials say the governor is not the first to use this tactic. The state law Bevin cites as the source of his authority is the same law former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear used to bypass the state legislature to create kynect, the state’s health insurance exchange.

The law in question allows governors to change state government organizational structure, “which may include creation, alteration or abolition of any state governmental body.” The law has been around since the 1960s, which Blake Brickman, Bevin’s chief of staff, said was a time when Kentucky was “more Democrat than, say, Texas is Republican today.”

“It has never been challenged because there has never been that political dynamic of the (Republican) vs. (Democrat) split, really,” Brickman said, noting that Bevin is only the state’s second Republican governor in the past four decades.

In addition to Elliott’s lawsuit, Bevin has been sued over his budget cuts to colleges and universities; his vetoes of the state’s two-year, $68 billion operating budget; and his decision to abolish the commission that controls who can be appointed as judges to resolve workers’ compensation claims.

Bevin says all the lawsuits are politically motivated, noting that they have all been brought by Democratic lawmakers or groups who traditionally support Democrats. Monday, Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Elliott has “no basis for a (law)suit” and criticized him for a “history of ethical violations and political favoritism.” In 2012, the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance fined Elliott $500 for not disclosing his role as co-chairman of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s inauguration committee. Registry officials noted the violation was inadvertent and Elliott had “no criminal intent.”

Dana Collins, one of Elliott’s attorneys, said Elliott and Bevin disagree politically but that is not relevant to his lawsuit.

“Gov. Bevin has gone way above and beyond at this point removing Mr. Elliott. Now he has completely reorganized the whole board of trustees with several of his political supporters,” she said.

Elliott’s lawsuit is similar to the legal challenge brought by labor unions over Bevin’s decision to abolish the Workers Compensation Nominating Commission and replace it with mostly new members. Ched Jennings, who represents the labor unions in the case, notes that the commission is governed by state laws that Bevin is rewriting without the approval of the state legislature.

“This judge and our courts are going to decide just how far can the governor go,” he said.

But Chad Meredith, one of Bevin’s attorneys, said the state Supreme Court in 1984 upheld the law as constitutional, ruling the act was an executive power, not a legislative one. Meredith said the state legislature has to approve all of Bevin’s orders reorganizing state government. However, he said that if the legislature does not approve them, Bevin can simply reissue the orders next year, with some slight changes.

“If people don’t like it, the answer is not, ‘Let’s ignore the statute.’ You can change the statute,” he said. “The legislature retains the ultimate control over it.”

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