Attorney General Andy Beshear would see his powers scaled back under a bill substitute filed by Senate President Robert Stivers. The late-breaking change adds more fuel to an ongoing political clash between the top law enforcement official and leading Republicans.
Beshear tells WUKY new language introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday siphons authority away from his office and hands it to the governor.
"This is the most unconstitutional power grab since we enacted our current constitution," he charges.
The substitute to House Bill 281, a transparency measure dealing with the AG office contracts, grants the governor the authority to represent the state in civil lawsuits, but carves out exceptions - such as utility rate and consumer protection cases - that would remain the concern of the AG. In doing so, Beshear argues the proposal runs roughshod over basic checks and balances.
"The attorney general isn't the governor's lawyer. He's not the legislature's lawyer. He's the people's lawyer," Beshear says. "My job is to represent the families all over the commonwealth and to make sure that no one has the power to trample their liberties. This would give a lot of that power over to the governor, which would give him the power to trample those liberties."
The proposal comes amid a still-simmering dispute between Gov. Matt Bevin and Beshear over a recently-challenged 2017 bill requiring the presentation of ultrasound results to women seeking an abortion, with Bevin calling the Democrat's legal defense "absolutely unconscionable." Bevin and Republicans have also taken Beshear to task for refusing to defend a separate abortion measure, Senate Bill 5, banning abortions at 20 weeks of gestation.
President Stivers described the newly-debuted bill substitute in committee as a "teaching moment," meant to clarify the attorney general's role. Committee chairman and 2015 Republican attorney general hopeful Whitney Westerfield notes the bill's fate is far from decided, but defends the Senate president's reasoning.
"I'm not fully on board with everything in the substitute, but I do believe (Stivers') legal rational for doing it is sound. I think that his argument about the constitutionality of it is sound. And it's worth talking about it only because there needs to be consistency in whether or not the AG is going to enforce the things the legislature passes," the Hopkinsville lawmaker says.
The Wednesday morning hearing sparked immediate debate over the bill substitute's origin, with Beshear detecting Bevin's fingerprints. Stivers said the governor did not seek the bill, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
The substitute, or an amended version, could come up for discussion again during the committee's next scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
If signed into law, Beshear is promising to take the matter to court.