North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein was taken by surprise this week when lawmakers he used to work beside as a state senator cut $10 million from the state Department of Justice budget with very specific targets.
Stein, a Democrat who has opposed some GOP-led signature legislation, urged the legislators to rethink their decision. By Thursday, district attorneys and police chiefs whose agencies would be affected by the cuts chimed in with the same request.
The budget writers designated specific funds where the cuts were to be made, an option that puts the recently elected attorney general in the position of planning layoffs of almost a third of the attorneys in the justice department.
“This move is as irresponsible as it is short-sighted,” Stein said in a statement released Tuesday, the day after legislative leaders released the $23.03 billion budget to the public.
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Stein said he was “deeply troubled” that the General Assembly directed his office to “eliminate the attorneys who work to prosecute criminals and keep them behind bars, who save taxpayers millions of dollars by defending against frivolous suits, who keep corporate bad actors in line, and who protect our clean air and water.”
The spending cuts would limit his office’s ability to defend the state, Stein said, and could expose taxpayers to “hundreds of millions of dollars in potential liability.”
“Public safety would not be maintained at its current level,” he added.
In an overview of the ramification of the cuts, which were not included in budgets initially proposed by the state Senate or state House of Representatives, Stein estimated he would have to lay off 123 full-time employees from his technology support staff, human resources office or his team of attorneys. The vast majority, he said, would be attorneys.
There are 213 full-time employees in the agency’s legal services office who would be protected from the cuts because their salaries come at least partly from other state agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, or from the federal government in the case of the Medicaid fraud team. Stein has said the attorneys in that group would not be able to pick up the workload of any laid-off staff.
Attorneys who represent the state on criminal appeals and those who step in as special prosecutors in cases that cannot be handled by the state’s district attorneys are paid through the funds designated in the budget cuts by lawmakers. Boards, commissions and such state offices as the Department of the State Treasurer and Office of Administrative Hearings, where state employees air grievances, also are represented through the attorney general’s office.
Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville who is a key budget writer, said the cuts to Stein’s office were motivated by budget priorities, not politics.
In an interview after the Senate approved the budget on Wednesday, Brown noted the Department of Justice’s budget of almost $88.7 million and said the proposed cuts amount to a little more than 10 percent of the department’s overall budget. The legislature has directed other state agencies to make bigger cuts than that over the years, he said.
“His agency has grown and grown and grown,” Brown said. “Honestly, most of us didn’t realize how big it was.”
Brown said legislators decided to put that money into hiring more assistant district attorneys and court clerks to handle an increasing workload, which will expand with the enactment of a provision that will put more young offenders into the juvenile justice system.
“They had to have some help,” Brown said. “You just look for areas to find some money to do it.”
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper blasts the legislature's compromise budget in a news conference Tuesday, June, 20, 2017 in Raleigh. Colin Campbellccampbell@newsobserver.com
Stein said Brown’s comparison does not reflect the practical implications of the cuts because he is restricted to a smaller pool of money from which he can get the savings. The $88.7 million Justice Department budget includes such programs as Criminal Justice Training and Standards and the state crime labs that do analyses and forensic tests in criminal investigations. The budget writers specified that none of the savings could come from those programs.
Michael Yaniero, the Jacksonville police chief and president of the North Carolina Association of Police Chiefs, delivered a letter to the legislative leaders on Wednesday, urging Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, and House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, to reconsider the cuts.
The Justice Department provides support that “is integral to law enforcement,” including legal counsel, special prosecution help and support to state prosecutors in appeals of criminal convictions, Yaniero said.
“The proposed recurring $10M cut,” Yaniero said in the letter, “will dramatically impair DOJ’s ability to prosecute criminals, keep convicted criminals behind bars by defending appeals, preserve taxpayer money by defending the State against lawsuits, and protect the people of North Carolina.”
The Conference of District Attorneys of North Carolina also expressed concerns about the cuts, saying the loss of the legal staff could hamper prosecutors’ ability to be well represented on appeals of death penalty cases and other legal expertise they rely on from the attorney general’s office. Scott Thomas, president of the conference and the chief prosecutor for Craven, Pamlico and Carteret counties, sent a letter to the General Assembly leaders on Thursday.
The budget also includes provisions that call for the state attorney general to represent the lawmakers when they are sued. Provisions allow the leaders of the General Assembly to decide whether to defend actions against them, as well as whether to hire private counsel to represent them, attorneys who would take the lead even if the state attorney general also were to provide counsel in the case.
Since Republicans gained control of both General Assembly chambers in 2011, key provisions of the sharp political swing to the right have been challenged in state and federal court.
During the last gubernatorial campaign in which Roy Cooper, the former state attorney general, won election over incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, Republicans criticized Cooper for not being on their side in court battles such as the challenges to the controversial House Bill 2, which since has been repealed and replaced.
Cooper’s office, though, helped defend the lawmakers in many of the challenges to their legislation. There often was an assistant attorney general at the defense table with the private counsel hired by the GOP legislative leadership.
Soon after the elections, similar complaints arose about Stein.
Stein joined Cooper in a legal maneuver to dial back a request from McCrory’s private attorneys in the waning days of the Republican’s administration for a U.S. Supreme Court review of the elections law decision.
Republicans have also criticized Stein for joining other attorneys general across the country in legal briefs against President Donald Trump’s travel ban and against an Ohio law that defunds Planned Parenthood.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.