Hillary Clinton wants to talk about cuts to higher education. And to get her message across, she’s turned to a recent conflict in Kentucky.
The Democratic front-runner doesn’t usually comment on state-level disputes. But in the midst of a funding battle in Kentucky, a Clinton policy adviser decided to weigh in. The campaign condemned cuts to state colleges and universities and suggested that, under Clinton’s plan, the situation in Kentucky could have been avoided.
What Happened in Kentucky?
In late March, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, cut state college and university budgets by 4.5 percent. The money saved would be used to fund the state's pension system, and the decision was to be carried out immediately.
The governor acted without legislative approval. Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit Monday arguing that the governor’s action was unconstitutional.
“Under his view, a budget is merely a suggestion and the Legislature is merely an advisory body,” Beshear told the Lexington Herald Leader.
By acting on his own, Bevin violated the separation of powers provision in the state Constitution, Beshear argued. The attorney general hopes to reverse the cuts as soon as possible.
What Clinton Had to Say
The day after Beshear filed his lawsuit, Clinton policy adviser Ann O’Leary issued a statement condemning the governor’s actions.
O’Leary said Bevin’s decision was wrong -- that it may even be illegal -- and that using funding for colleges and universities to fill budget shortfalls puts students and families at risk.
“Hillary Clinton knows this,” she continued, “which is why she would enact a New College Compact that ensures state governments, the federal government, colleges and universities all have skin in the game and money on the table, to make college more affordable and debt less crippling for students and their families in Kentucky and across the country.”
So far, Clinton’s campaign has focused more generally on the state of American public higher education, promising lower costs and manageable debt. She doesn’t always get into the weeds (“How will Hillary’s plan help you? Take the quiz to find out,” reads her website), and when she does, she’s shied away from zeroing in on a particular incident so deeply.
But her opponent, Bernie Sanders, has taken a different approach. Back in December, he wrote a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat backing Clinton, urging him invest in faculty salaries. At the City University of New York, faculty members hadn’t had a raise in half a decade.
In the past, Clinton has criticized Sanders for creating an affordable college plan that relied too much on state support -- which still hasn’t returned to prerecession levels. Under Sanders's plan to eliminate tuition at public colleges, the federal government would cover two-thirds of the cost, while states would be required to cover one-third.
Clinton’s plan wouldn't directly stop the cuts in states like Kentucky, but it would provide states with similar incentive grants: in order to accept the grants, states would need to stop disinvesting in higher education. For states that refuse to participate, the campaign has hinted at a program where colleges could apply for funding on their own.
The Democratic primary in Kentucky is May 17. A Clinton spokesman said the campaign had no comment on O’Leary’s statement. It’s noteworthy, however, that Clinton decided to focus on Kentucky, as other governors have made similar midyear cuts in the past.
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