LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Republican Gov. Matt Bevin would have “exclusive authority” to represent Kentucky in civil lawsuits under a proposal to limit the powers of Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, the state’s top elected lawyer.

A committee substitute to House Bill 281 was introduced at Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which discussed it but adjourned without taking a vote. The original bill addressing contracts in the attorney general’s office passed the House in February.

Speaking before the committee, Beshear called the changes to the bill an "unprecedented power grab."

Bevin and Beshear have feuded in court since both were elected in 2015. Beshear successfully stopped Bevin’s attempt last summer to unilaterally replace the University of Louisville board of trustees, with the legislature ultimately passing a bill letting the governor make the appointments. Earlier this year, Bevin accused Beshear of failing to defend an abortion bill approved by the legislature.

The attorney general could continue to represent the state in ongoing lawsuits if the governor allows it, according to a version of the changes obtained by WDRB. The proposal doesn’t affect other duties of Beshear’s office, such as criminal prosecutions, consumer protection issues and open records reviews.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, filed the committee substitute. He said in an interview that it is an attempt to clarify the duties of the attorney general, which the Kentucky Constitution simply says “shall be such as may be prescribed by law.”

Stivers said the measure was not initiated by Bevin’s office.

“This goes back to what I have watched over 20 years and the fact that the attorney general is trying to express position statements for the state – the Commonwealth – when that shouldn’t be his role,” he said.

Stivers accused Beshear of selectively choosing cases to pursue. While acknowledging that Beshear initially blocked Bevin’s attempt to remake the U of L board, Stivers questioned why the attorney general didn’t take similar action to dispute the board’s previous lack of diversity requirements, which apply to minorities and members of political parties.

Steve Beshear’s appointments caused the board to lose its required racial and political balance under state law. (Bevin settled a lawsuit brought by Louisville's Justice Resource Center in April 2016 and agreed to appoint at least three trustees who are racial minorities; no one has challenged the political affiliation issue.)

Stivers also noted an amicus, or "friend of the court" brief by Beshear challenging local right-to-work ordinances, saying that "is not our position at all."

“He tends to pick and choose which statutes, based on his personal belief, he wants to defend or not defend,” Stivers said of Beshear.

But Beshear, who testified before the committee, said Stivers' measure seeks to “fundamentally change” the role of a constitutionally-elected officer in the final days of the General Assembly. If passed, he said, it could create barriers to his office filing lawsuits meant to protect Kentuckians.

“My concern is this is the biggest constitutional power grab that we have seen since our newest constitution was put into place,” Beshear told reporters after the meeting, according to an audio recording provided by his office.

He claimed the measure attempts to damage the independence of his office and give the governor a "get-out-of-jail-free" card.

“Either the governor could violate the Constitution or law and no one could bring suit against him, or he would get to decide after the initial trial court judgment whether he could continue to pursue a case,” Beshear said. “That is bad government. That removes an essential and necessary check on authority.”

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the judiciary committee’s chairman, tweeted after the meeting that he may not call Stivers’ proposal for a vote, and that he is not “fully on board.” Westerfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville, was defeated by Beshear in the attorney’s general race in 2015.

There are five working days left in the 2017 General Assembly. Even though no vote was taken Wednesday, Stivers said there remains time to consider the amended bill.

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