North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has spent the past several weeks asking other state agencies to contribute money from their budgets to pay for the work of assistant attorneys general who might have to be laid off to comply with a surprise $10 million budget cut.
Stein, a Democrat and former state senator from Wake County, found out shortly before the new fiscal year began July 1 that his office would lose that state money. Legislative leaders didn’t call his office, he said, to talk about a proposal that showed up only in the final version of the state budget after not being included in either the state House or Senate spending plans.
The budget lines that specified the cuts were so targeted that Stein estimated he might have to cut 123 full-time employees from his team of attorneys, technology support staff and human resources staff. The vast majority, he said, would be staff lawyers who help represent the state on criminal appeals, fill in on cases that cannot be handled by the state’s district attorneys under special circumstances and offer counsel on cases that arise out of the UNC system, commissions and such state offices as the Department of the State Treasurer and Office of Administrative Hearings, where state employees air grievances.
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“Everybody we’ve talked to is very concerned about the cuts,” Stein said.
No agency has committed to providing funding, he said.
“Our lawyers keep murderers and rapists behind bars,” Stein said. “They go after health care providers who are cheating the taxpayers.”
Additionally, Stein said, the attorneys help build consumer protection cases and protect the state and its residents from environmental polluters.
“The state will be less safe ... because of these draconian cuts,” Stein said.
Before contacting state agencies that might suffer from cuts to his workforce, Stein said he tried to appeal to Phil Berger, the state Senate leader, and Tim Moore, the speaker of the state House. But lawmakers left Raleigh without putting forward the technical amendment to the budget that Stein advocated.
“I pushed the legislature as hard as I could,” Stein said during a telephone interview.
So now Stein said he is trying to make it clear to other state agencies and commissions what effects they might experience if his office loses more than one-third of the full-time employees in its legal services division.
The absence of legal assistance that has been provided over the years to the various state agencies could add expenses to their budgets if they have to add in-house attorneys to do the same thing or pay for private counsel.
Shortly after the approval of the state spending plan that cut more than 10 percent of the department’s overall budget of $88.7 million, Republicans offered several reasons — from wanting to shift the money to the hiring of more assistant district attorneys to allegations that Stein’s office had not represented the Republican-led legislature as the leaders preferred.
“The attorney general’s job is to represent his client, and his client is the state of North Carolina, and in many respects, it’s the state of North Carolina as represented by the elected representatives of the state,” Berger said at a news conference in June after the state budget was approved. “There have been instances where the attorney general seems to believe that that’s not his job, that his job is to do whatever he thinks is appropriate.
“We have again looked at his budget, looked at those things that he is charged constitutionally and statutorily with doing, and believe that the funding level is more than adequate for him to be able to do his job,” Berger concluded.
Efforts to reach Berger on Thursday were not immediately successful.
As a state senator, Stein has spoken out against GOP-led signature legislation.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, experienced similar criticism from Republican leaders while he was at the helm of the attorney general’s office. After they both won their elections in November, Stein and Cooper joined forces 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.
Recently, the lawmakers included provisions in the budget that call for the 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.
The challenged legislation has been overturned far more often than upheld.
According to an April fiscal research report to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, the General Assembly has spent $12.6 million on outside counsel to represent the legislature in these cases. Some of the cases involved attorneys representing legislative leaders as well as those from the state attorney general’s office under the leadership of Cooper.
The Conference of District Attorneys of North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Police Chiefs, the N.C. Sheriffs Association and most recently former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican, have spoken out against the cuts.
“The draconian stripping of Democrat Attorney General Josh Stein’s budget with no debate or discussion is simply unacceptable,” Orr said in a column titled “I’m Republican, but NC legislature went too far” in The Charlotte Observer. “This kind of hardball politics doesn’t just ‘punish’ a political opponent but jeopardizes the critical work of the attorney general’s office.”
Stein defended the attorneys in his office, saying the potential for mass layoffs has produced anxiety.
“People are definitely doing their jobs,” Stein said. “They’re professionals. They’re demoralized.”
Stein said he thinks partisan politics is the motivation for the cuts.
“The work that the Department of Justice does is not partisan,” Stein added.