Power struggle: Beshear signs one nuclear bill, vetoes another

Published 12:50 pm Friday, April 5, 2024

FRANKFORT — Gov. Andy Beshear promoted one of his first vetoes this year as a fight for separation of powers.

Thursday, Beshear shared a long list of bills he signed during the first week of the veto period, as well as a few vetoes.

He approved Senate Joint Resolution 140, which directs Kentucky’s Public Service Commission to prepare for nuclear energy development by making staffing and administrative plans.

However, Beshear vetoed another nuclear development bill—Senate Bill 198.

SB198 would establish the Kentucky Nuclear Energy Development Authority. The authority would serve as a non-regulatory, state government agency overseeing and advising on nuclear energy development in the Commonwealth.

KNEDA would develop a strategic plan, analyze nuclear energy’s potential economic impact, offer recommendations to the state government and adopt criteria for nuclear ready community designations.

It would also educate the public on nuclear opportunities, benefits and concerns, as well as develop a greater capacity for nuclear energy through education, economic development incentives and seeking out financial support.

Beshear supports all of that, he said.

“I believe in an all-of-the-above energy policy that includes nuclear energy,” he said.

However, Beshear takes issue with the membership of KNEDA’s board.

The board has 15 voting members, including representatives from investor-owned electric and municipal utilities, electric cooperative, environmental and commercial interests, nuclear site remediation services and a mayor and county judge executive living in an “energy community.”

Eight non-voting members include two members of the Kentucky House of Representatives and two from the Senate, as well as several nuclear energy experts.

These members are all appointed by the private sector, not the Governor or any other member of the executive branch.

Beshear said that’s unconstitutional. The legislative branch makes the laws, and the executive branch carries them out, he said.

In his veto message, Beshear cited a 1984 Kentucky Supreme Court case ruling that the appointment power belongs to the executive branch.

“Senate Bill 198 deprives the citizens of the Commonwealth of any meaningful oversight within the executive branch,” he wrote.

Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, who sponsored SB198, said he was “disappointed” in the veto.

“It saddens me that in Frankfort, political considerations often overshadow efforts that could benefit Kentucky’s families and communities,” Carroll said.

“The intent of this bill is to get us one step closer to a critical expansion of our all-the-above energy policy the governor says he supports. This veto only delays Kentucky’s progress in exploring nuclear energy opportunities, a path many other states are pursuing.”

Carroll said the intent behind the appointment process was to “minimize political influence” in the decision, and instead have members be chosen by their respective organizations.

The senator responded to another of Beshear’s gripes—that SB198 doesn’t come with any funding to execute its job.

Carroll pointed out that $40 million in the biennial budget is directed to long term investments at the University of Kentucky. The interest earned on those investments is set aside for the Kentucky Nuclear Energy Development Authority, as well as a separate energy commission.

Beshear’s veto may be just another battle in a long war over the power balance between the legislature and the executive branch.

In the 70s and 80s, Beshear said the governor was too powerful, with the legislature considered a “rubber stamp.” In recent decades, the courts have addressed this, but Beshear thinks they’ve moved too far in the other direction.

“For instance, if the legislature can take any authority from the governor and give it to any other constitutional officer at any time and for any reason, then they control the executive branch, and that’s not what’s intended under the separation of powers,” he said.

If his veto is overridden, the governor said that anyone the nuclear board regulates who doesn’t like its decision can challenge the board’s authority in court. But that alone won’t end the war.

“I don’t know how it needs to get to the Supreme Court,” Beshear said, “But I think we ultimately need just a new common sense decision that’s specific enough to where we can avoid a lot of these very similar lawsuits in the future that all seem about power.”