FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - Months after trying to siphon money from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to boost the state’s budget, Gov. Andy Beshear is again at odds with the department that is charged with conserving, protecting and enhancing Kentucky’s fish and wildlife resources.
This time, the governor and the nine-member state Fish and Wildlife Commission could end up in court over Beshear’s attempt to assert authority over the commissioner who has traditionally been hired by the commission.
The commission has a virtual meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. CT Thursday to decide what action to take in response to the Beshear administration’s attempt to usurp its authority in hiring a commissioner.
Beshear, a Democrat whose attempt earlier this year to divert to the general fund $5.5 million of boat registration money in each year of a proposed biennial budget was ultimately shot down by a Republican-controlled General Assembly, is now taking aim at Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Rich Storm.
Storm, a former fish and wildlife commission member, was hired by that body in January 2019 to fill a vacancy created when Gregory Johnson retired as commissioner in 2018.
The commission unanimously approved Jan. 31 of this year a two-year contract extension at $140,000 per year for Storm, 40, a Nicholas County resident.
But after months of taking no action on approving the contract extension, the Beshear administration through the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet that oversees the fish and wildlife department offered Storm a one-year, $140,000 contract.
Because the offer didn’t come from the fish and wildlife commission, which by statute has the authority to hire and fire the commissioner, Storm didn’t respond. He has since had his paychecks stopped by the Beshear administration and is not currently in the commissioner role.
“When I received that offer from the cabinet, I considered it invalid,” Storm said Wednesday. “I saw it as an attempt to shorten my tenure and try to make a deal with me and get more control of fish and wildlife.”
A cabinet spokeswoman had a different explanation. Danielle Jones said Storm was offered the one-year contract because the state legislature approved a state budget for one year instead of two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That reasoning didn’t pass muster with GOP Attorney General Daniel Cameron or with the sportsmen who fund the fish and wildlife department through their payments of licenses and fees.
Citing Kentucky Revised Statute 150.061, Cameron issued an opinion stating that the fish and wildlife commission has the sole authority to hire and fire the commissioner.
Elizabeth Kuhn, a spokesperson for Cameron’s office, said in an email: “In addition to the opinion issued by our office, a bipartisan group of legislators sent a letter to the governor stating that the commission has the ability to choose its own commissioner. We find the administration’s position on this curious given that they have awarded contracts to other state government employees and contractors that extend beyond one year and use general fund dollars. The Fish & Wildlife Commissioner’s contract is paid for using restricted funds.”
The president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen, Edwin Nighbert, was a bit more blunt in his assessment of the Beshear administration’s actions in regard to Storm.
“This is blatant overreach by the governor,” Nighbert said. “Our department (fish and wildlife) should never be political. It gets absolutely zero money from the general fund and has operated in the black for as long as I can remember.”
Storm can’t predict what decision will come out of Thursday’s meeting, but he is confident that the commission has the law on its side.
“I think the law is so simple and clear that I don’t think this will be a long, drawn-out process,” he said. “Given the opportunity, I would be honored to continue to lead the agency, but they (the commissioners) have the final authority.”
Thursday’s online meeting of the fish and wildlife commission can be viewed on the department’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/FishandWildlifeKY.