Governor of Kentucky

Governor of Kentucky
Seal of Kentucky.svg
Matt Bevin.jpg
Matt Bevin

since December 8, 2015
StyleThe Honorable
ResidenceKentucky Governor's Mansion
Term lengthFour years, renewable once
Inaugural holderIsaac Shelby
FormationJune 4, 1792
DeputyLieutenant Governor of Kentucky
Salary$145,992 (2018)[1]
WebsiteOfficial website Edit this at Wikidata

The Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is the head of the executive branch of government in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Fifty-seven men and one woman have served as Governor of Kentucky. The governor's term is four years in length; since 1992, incumbents have been able to seek re-election once before becoming ineligible for four years. Throughout the state's history, four men have served two non-consecutive terms as governor, and two others have served two consecutive terms. Kentucky is one of only five U.S. states that hold gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years. The current governor is Matt Bevin, who was first elected in 2015.

The governor's powers are enumerated in the state constitution. There have been four constitutions of Kentucky—adopted in 1792, 1799, 1850, and 1891, respectively—and each has enlarged the governor's authority. Among the powers appropriated to the governor in the constitution are the ability to grant pardons, veto legislation, and call the legislature into session. The governor serves as commander-in-chief of the state's military forces and is empowered to enforce all laws of the state. The officeholder is given broad statutory authority to make appointments to the various cabinets and departments of the executive branch, limited somewhat by the adoption of a merit system for state employees in 1960. Because Kentucky's governor controls so many appointments to commissions, the office has been historically considered one of the most powerful state executive positions in the United States. Additionally, the governor's influence has been augmented by wide discretion in awarding state contracts and significant influence over the legislature, although the latter has been waning since the mid-1970s.

The history of the office of Governor is largely one of long periods of domination by a single party, though different parties were predominant in different eras. Federalists were rare among Kentuckians during the period of the First Party System, and Democratic Republicans won every gubernatorial election in the state until 1828. The Second Party System began when the Democratic-Republicans split into Jacksonian Democrats (the predecessor of the modern Democratic Party) and National Republicans (later to become Whigs). Beginning with the election of Thomas Metcalfe in 1828, the Whigs dominated the governorship until 1851, with John Breathitt being the only Democrat elected during that period.

With the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s, Democrats took control of the governorship for the duration of the Third Party System, with Charles S. Morehead of the Know Nothing Party being the only exception. The election of Republican William O'Connell Bradley in 1895 began the only period of true two-party competition for the governorship; from Bradley's election through 1931, five Republicans and six Democrats held the office of governor of Kentucky. Since 1931, only four Republicans have served as governor of Kentucky; current governor Matt Bevin, whose term began in 2015, is the most recent.

Powers and responsibilities

The governor's office

In all four Kentucky constitutions, the first power enumerated to the governor is to serve as commander-in-chief of the state's militia and military forces.[2] In 1799, a stipulation was added that the governor would not personally lead troops on the battlefield unless advised to do so by a resolution of the General Assembly.[2] Such a case occurred in 1813 when Governor Isaac Shelby, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was asked to lead a band of Kentucky troops to aid William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames.[3] For his service, Shelby received the Thanks of Congress and the Congressional Gold Medal.[4]

Among the other powers and responsibilities of the governor that appear in all four constitutions are the power to enforce all laws, the power to fill vacancies in elected offices until the next meeting of the General Assembly, and the power to remit fines and grant pardons.[5] The power to pardon is not applicable to cases of impeachment, and in cases of treason, a gubernatorial pardon is only effective until the end of the next session of the General Assembly, which can grant a full pardon for treason.[6] The 1891 constitution further required that, with each application for a pardon, the governor file "a statement of the reasons for his decision thereon, which ... shall always be open to public inspection."[7] This requirement was first proposed by a delegate to the 1850 constitutional convention, but it was rejected at that time.[8] Historically, power in Kentucky's executive has been split amongst a variety of elected positions—including Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Auditor of Public Accounts, Treasurer, and several commissioners—but in the late 20th century, political power has centralized in the office of Governor.[9]

Convening and adjourning the legislature

The power of the governor to adjourn the General Assembly for a period of up to four months if the two houses cannot agree on a time to adjourn appears in all four constitutions.[10] The governor is also empowered to convene the General Assembly "on extraordinary occasions".[10] Since the 1799 constitution, the governor has been permitted to call the legislature into session somewhere other than the state capital if the capital had, since the last legislative session, "become dangerous from an enemy or from contagious diseases."[11] This was an important provision in the early days of the Commonwealth, when epidemics like smallpox posed a danger to the populace.[12] One notable example of an attempt to employ this power was in 1900 when Republican Governor William S. Taylor attempted to adjourn the legislature and re-convene it in heavily Republican London, Kentucky following the shooting of William Goebel.[12] Taylor claimed a state of insurrection existed in the capital, but defiant Democrats refused to heed the call to adjourn or to convene in London.[13]

The 1891 constitution added a provision that the governor must specify the reason for any specially-called legislative session, and that no other business could be considered during the session.[14] There is, however, no constitutional requirement that the legislature conduct any business during the called session. In 2007, Republican governor Ernie Fletcher called the Assembly into session to consider a long list of items.[15] The Democratically-controlled House of Representatives maintained that none of the items were urgent enough that they could not wait until the regular session convened; they claimed that Fletcher was calling the session only to boost his sagging poll numbers before the upcoming election in which he faced a challenge from Democrat Steve Beshear.[15] The House convened on the day appointed and adjourned an hour later without transacting any business.[15]


Unlike the U.S. President, the governor does not have the option of a pocket veto. If the governor does not make a decision to sign or veto a bill, it automatically becomes law after ten days.[16] In the event that the legislature adjourns to prevent the return of a bill by veto, the bill becomes law three days after the commencement of the next legislative session unless the governor explicitly vetoes it.[16] (With the federal pocket veto, the bill is considered vetoed after ten days if the legislature adjourns.)[17]

The 1799 constitution contained, for the first time, the power of the governor to veto legislation; this power was substantially similar to, and probably based upon, that found in the 1792 New Hampshire Constitution and the 1798 Georgia Constitution.[12] The 1891 constitution empowered the governor with a line-item veto, but its use was forbidden on constitutional amendments and laws related to the classification of property for tax purposes. The governor's veto can be overridden by roll-call majority votes of both houses of the legislature.[16][18]


Although setting the state budget is a legislative function in many states, Kentucky governors are required by statute to present a proposed biennial budget to the General Assembly for approval shortly after the beginning of its even-year sessions.[19][20] The governor's budget has often been approved with few changes, but since the Republicans took control of the state senate for the first time in 1999, approval has become a much more contentious process.[20][21] The General Assembly failed to pass a budget before the end of its session in both 2002 and 2004.[22] In both cases, the state operated under an executive spending plan drafted by the governor until the legislature could re-convene and pass a budget.[22] In 2005 the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the governor had no authority to expend funds without legislative approval, and that if legislators failed to pass a budget in the future, only expenditures explicitly authorized in the state constitution could be made.[22]

Administration and appointments

Although the Kentucky constitution designates the governor as the head of the executive branch of state government, it does not specify the means of carrying out that role.[23] Empowered to nominate all constitutional officers by the state's first constitution, that power of the office of the governor has been reduced in subsequent constitutions, as more of those offices became elective.[24] Because the governor is not explicitly authorized by the constitution to conduct many of the functions necessary to administer the state government, the officeholder has had to rely on empowering legislation enacted by the General Assembly.[23] With this in mind, Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark wrote in 2004 that extensive executive powers had been granted through the creation of a large number of commissions that reported to the governor:

During the past century and a half, and especially in the later 20th century, it would have been impossible for state government to operate efficiently without a broadening of executive powers. Through the years the General Assembly has created a myriad of commissions and turned them over to the governor to exercise administrative oversight. ... All of these commissions extended the influence of the governor into every phase of human life in the commonwealth, well beyond the limitations of executive power envisioned by delegates to the constitutional convention in 1891.[25]

By 1934, the executive branch consisted of sixty-nine boards, commissions, and agencies in addition to the constitutional officers, although the members of these commissions were often the constitutional officers themselves. Governor Ruby Laffoon proposed the Administrative Reorganization Act of 1934 to organize these boards and commissions into seventeen executive departments and seven independent agencies. The General Assembly passed this legislation, giving the executive branch some semblance of structure for the first time.[26]

A man in his fifties, with thinning black hair, sitting at a desk, face-forward, wearing a suit
Happy Chandler created greater efficiency in state government under the Reorganization Act of 1936.

Laffoon's successor, A. B. "Happy" Chandler, called a special legislative session in 1936 seeking passage of another reorganization act.[26] This act abolished several commissions and organized those remaining into ten statutory departments: Finance, Revenue, Highways, Health, Welfare, Industrial Relations, Business Regulation, Conservation, Libraries and Archives, and Mines and Minerals.[27] The Act also created the Executive Cabinet, consisting of the constitutional officers and the heads of each of the ten statutory departments.[28] The efficiencies created by Chandler's reorganization allowed him to pay off more than three-quarters of the state's $28.5 million debt.[29] Besides effecting the reorganization of the executive branch, the Reorganization Act of 1936 also explicitly empowered the governor to appoint executive department heads and establish, combine, or divide departments as necessary.[30] Later statutes gave the governor the power to appoint advisory committees on reorganization, appoint deputy heads of divisions, transfer employees and change their responsibilities within the executive branch, and establish general rules of conduct for executive branch members.[30]

In the 35 years between the time of Chandler's reorganization and the election of Wendell H. Ford as governor in 1971, the executive branch had again become unwieldy. 60 departments and 210 boards reported directly to the governor by 1972, and duplication of services between departments had created inefficiencies. On January 1, 1973, a plan that Ford had issued in late 1972 took effect, consolidating the departments reporting to him into six program cabinets: Consumer Protection and Regulation, Development, Education and the Arts, Human Resources, Safety and Justice, and Transportation. Ford continued merging departments and reorganizing the executive branch throughout 1973 to the extent that, by the end of the year, there were only three program cabinets (Development, Education and the Arts, and Consumer Protection and Regulation) and four additional departments (Human Resources, Justice, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, and Transportation).[31]

By 2002, the executive branch had again grown to fourteen cabinets, but had no additional departments.[32] Shortly after his election in 2003, Governor Ernie Fletcher undertook the last major reorganization of the executive branch to date, reducing the number of cabinets to nine—Justice and Public Safety, Education and Workforce Development, Environmental and Public Protection, Transportation, Economic Development, Health and Family Services, Finance and Administration, Tourism, Arts and Heritage, and Personnel.[33][34]

Because the governor controls so many appointments to commissions—approximately 2,000 according to a 1992 estimate—the office has been historically considered one of the most powerful state executive positions in the United States.[21] Additionally, the governor is given wide discretion in awarding state contracts, further augmenting his influence.[21] In the second half of the 20th century, attempts were made to curb the use of the governor's appointment power for political patronage. During his second term in office, Happy Chandler issued an executive order creating a merit system that forbade the hiring or firing of state employees for political reasons; his successor, Bert T. Combs, pushed a new merit system through the legislature, protecting it from abolition by executive order.[35] Despite the presence of the merit system, many governors have been criticized for abusing their appointment power.[36] In 2005, Ernie Fletcher and several members of his administration were indicted for violating the merit system in their hiring practices; the charges were later dropped as part of an agreement with the prosecutor, Attorney General Greg Stumbo.[37]

Unofficial powers

In The Kentucky Encyclopedia, Eastern Kentucky University professor Paul Blanchard writes that "Many observers consider the governor's informal powers—those derived from tradition, custom, and precedent—as important as the formal powers."[21] Frequently the leaders of their political parties at the state level, Kentucky governors usually control the party's delegations to state and national party conventions.[36] Though given few powers with regard to the legislature, Kentucky governors can exercise a great deal of influence over the General Assembly, often hand-selecting the leadership of both chambers.[19][38] A move toward a more independent legislature began in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly during the administration of Governor John Y. Brown, Jr. from 1979 to 1983.[19] Brown was much less engaged in legislative affairs than his predecessors; he did not seek to influence the selection of the legislature's leadership, and he left on vacation during one of the two legislative sessions of his term.[38][39] The trend toward a coequal legislature continued under the administrations of Brown's two immediate successors, Martha Layne Collins and Wallace Wilkinson, neither of whom was considered a strong executive.[21]

The governor is also the most visible state officer and is the center of political attention in the Commonwealth.[36] The official host of the state when dignitaries visit, the governor frequently delivers addresses at various dedications and ceremonies, and appears on national television with the winner of the annual Kentucky Derby.[36] The state constitution requires the governor to address the legislature periodically regarding the state of the Commonwealth.[40] This address, traditionally given annually, is often targeted directly at the state's citizens as much as, or more so than, the legislature.[25] The governor can use the address to extol the accomplishments of his or her term and lay out a specific plan for the upcoming legislative session; the contents of the address often shape the agenda of the session.[25] The state's media outlets devote significant coverage to the governor's actions, and many strong governors have used the media to win support for their agendas and criticize political enemies.[21]