Did Gov. Bevin have the right to fire Lt. Gov. Hampton’s top two staffers?

Since 1995, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in Kentucky have run as a united team, ready and eager to tell voters they will work together for the good of the state. The relationships of those who win office often don’t end that way.

Kentuckians now are witnessing a bitter feud between Gov. Matt Bevin and Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton that could morph into a court battle. She is more than upset over the Bevin Administration’s firing of her two top staffers, asking for prayer against the “dark forces” at work against her. She is “pursuing action” to reinstate the two staffers, but has not yet spelled out her course of action.

Not since Lt. Gov. Steve Pence parted ways with Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2006 has there been such acrimony between the state’s two top elected officials. Pence said the Fletcher administration never tried to fire any of his staff but did reassign them to other offices in state government when Pence and Fletcher had a falling out. (Pence refused to be on Fletcher’s re-election ticket after Fletcher was indicted for misuse of the state merit system to protect rank-and-file state workers. Fletcher asked Pence to resign but he refused.)

Kentuckians in 1992 approved a constitutional amendment that significantly altered the powers of the lieutenant governor. It stopped the practice of the lieutenant governor becoming acting governor when the governor was out of state, removed the lieutenant governor as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate and required candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to run on a single ticket. The primary official duty of the lieutenant governor is to step into the job of governor if the governor is incapacitated or dies.

Concerning the appointing powers of the governor and lieutenant governor, the Bevin Administration points to a state law (Kentucky Revised Statute 11.040) to back up its authority to dismiss Hampton’s employees.

It says: “The Governor may appoint such persons as he deems necessary for the proper operation of his office to perform such duties as the Governor may require of them. The persons so appointed shall hold office at the pleasure of the Governor.”

Unlike the attorney general and other elected constitutional officers, who appoint their own staffs, Bevin signed the appointments for Hampton’s employees and thus has the right to fire them, his backers contend.

Hampton and her staffers note that the actual notices of dismissal were signed by Troy Robinson, director of office of administrative services in the state Finance Cabinet, and not by the governor. A review of state records by the Herald-Leader, though, shows that Bevin signed a form on Dec. 8, 2015, when he took office, to give Robinson authority to sign dismissals.

Another argument used by the Bevin Administration for the dismissals is that the state budget enacted by the General Assembly provides an appropriation to the governor’s office, which, in turn, gives money to the lieutenant governor’s office. Under this arrangement, the governor’s office controls the purse strings of the lieutenant governor’s office, including salaries for staff.

The two-year budget lawmakers approved in the 2018 General Assembly set aside about $9.1 million a year for the governor’s office and none to the lieutenant governor’s office. The governor’s office gave about $897,300 of its funding to the lieutenant governor’s office for its operations and $19,200 for her expenses.

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