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Despite objections from Gov. Andy Beshear, Rich Storm will be returning Friday as commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources with a new contract in hand.
Storm, of Carlisle, will be working with a four-year contract starting at $140,000 a year and jumping to $147,000 in each of the next three years.
That is slightly less than the annual salary for the governor ($152,180) and Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. ($147,362) but eclipses the salary for state constitutional officers, such as Attorney General Daniel Cameron and Secretary of State Michael Adams ($129,374), and members of Beshear’s cabinet, such as Health and Family Services Secertary Eric Friedlander and Justice and Public Safety Secretary Mary Noble ($136,000).
The department’s governing board — the Fish and Wildlife Commission — voted 6-1 late Wednesday to approve a new contract for Storm, effective Friday. Member Brian Fischer of Bowling Green cast the only vote against the contract.
Details of the contract were not immediately released publicly after a nearly hour-long closed session and the public vote. Kevin Kelly, a spokesman for the department, later released highlights of the contract.
In addition to the salary, it includes a health insurance stipend of not more than $700 a month to cover actual out-of-pocket insurance premium costs, 12 sick days and 24 days of leave.
Karl Clinard, the board chairman, defended the contract, saying the $140,000-a-year salary was what Storm was getting paid before the Beshear administration last July stopped paying Storm.
Clinard said the 5 percent salary hike after the first year and the four-year term were added to the latest contract “to make sure we can keep someone qualified. I think it’s a bargain.”
Storm had been working under a two-year contract for $140,000 a year.
Asked if the board made the new contract for four years to make sure Storm would still be commissioner beyond Beshear’s four-year term, Clinard said, “This has nothing to do with Beshear’s term in office or politics.”
Clinard also said Storm’s new contract is not retroactive and that it has to be approved by the legislature’s Government Contract Review Committee.
That is not expected to be an obstacle since the Republican-led legislature this year approved a new law over Beshear’s veto that made Storm’s comeback possible. The measure allows the Fish and Wildlife board to appoint its own commissioner and set the salary for the job with the approval of the legislature’s Government Contract Review Committee.
Beshear claimed the measure was unconstitutional and that a 2018 audit of the fish and wildlife department showed there should be strong oversight of the board.
The board has argued consistently that it has sole authority in hiring Storm as its commissioner and setting his salary. Beshear has consistently disagreed.
In January last year, the board unanimously voted to give Storm, who became commissioner in January 2019 during the administration of former Gov. Matt Bevin, a new two-year contract at $140,000 a year. The Beshear administration offered Storm only a one-year contract, noting that the legislature in 2020 enacted only a one-year state budget. When Storm did not accept it, the administration stopped his salary July 15.
The fish and wildlife board voted 7-0 last Aug. 12 to pursue a lawsuit to keep Storm as commissioner. It said the administration had approved more than 900 contracts that extend beyond one year and that money to pay Storm’s salary would not come from the state’s General Fund but from fees and federal funds.
Beshear called the board’s action “silly.”
Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate dismissed the commission’s lawsuit last October but the commission, with support from Attorney General Daniel Cameron, has appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
Clinard said Thursday the lawsuit is still pending.
Storm, a farmer, joined the Fish and Wildlife Commission in August 2016 as a board representative. In September 2018, he was elected to serve as chairman of the nine-member commission. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from Morehead State University.
The budget for the fish and wildlife department is about $68 million. The department, an agency of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, is responsible for the conservation of wildlife resources and for boating projects in the state.