The last-minute nature of a $10 million cut to the state attorney general’s office was one clue that this was a petty, purely partisan maneuver on the part of Republican leaders of the General Assembly. So was the round figure, bespeaking an arbitrary number that GOP lawmakers wanted to impose just because they could. And Democrat Josh Stein took the job, previously held by now-Gov. Roy Cooper, from Republican Buck Newton in a tight race.
But this cut is serious, and it will have serious consequences for every resident of North Carolina. Yes, make no mistake: In their zeal to hurt Stein, Republicans laid waste to the AG’s office in a way that will hurt the prosecution of criminals, the enforcement of regulations protecting the environment and important to average residents, will weaken the consumer protections the AG enforces.
Stein is still negotiating to see if he can get GOP leaders to forgo $3 million of the cut – and he shouldn’t have to do that. He’s laid off 45 people including lawyers, Stein said in an interview, “who have decades of experience prosecuting murderers, rapists ... lawyers who have experience handling criminal appeals of sex offenders ... we have lawyers who enforce child support laws, looking out for our kids, protecting the quality of our drinking water. We even lost a lawyer who had incredible experience in tobacco litigation that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year (for the state).”
Yes, what some North Carolinians may not realize is that the attorney general’s office is charged with representing the people in matters criminal and civil, and Stein’s charge as a statewide elected official is to represent the people and the Constitution. Republicans, who have hired expensive private lawyers to tilt at windmills regarding voter ID and redistricting, have been angry at the AG’s office, first at Cooper and now at Stein, for not embracing their foolish whims (repudiated by the courts, by the way) at state expense.
So that $10 million is a little payback. Only it’s a real threat to justice and to public safety.
District attorneys, for example, depend on the AG to handle appeals of convicted criminals, including violent, hardcore criminals. Absent the AG’s help, those DAs would be even more stacked up with work, stressed in time and energy, to keep some really bad people off the street.
Stein, who most recently was a state senator but previously headed the consumer protection unit of the AG’s office, came to his position with more and better experience than any predecessor in a long time. He has been creative in trying to cut a budget that was hardly inflated. He made some cuts, reluctantly. And other state agencies, who depend on the AG to represent them, have offered about $3 million-plus in help. But Stein says he has nowhere to go to get the remaining $3 million, and hopes to negotiate with GOP lawmakers.
“What I want,” he said, “is for the General Assembly to help us make sure the public suffers no more harm than necessary. We can’t do that last $3 million because it will create too much damage. It will jeopardize public safety.”
In addition to the staff laid off, other lawyers have been leaving for private sector work because they viewed their futures at the AG’s office as uncertain, given the harsh partisanship in the General Assembly. That has hurt the office, though Stein has done what he could to minimize what he nonetheless acknowledges is substantial damage.
And just in case people think the Attorney General’s lawyers are enjoying outrageous salaries, the average for a lawyer runs from around $50,000 to $120,000 depending on experience, and those who leave the office after some time almost always boost their pay considerably in a private law firm. “What we offer,” Stein said, “is public service and a stable work environment – and the legislature has turned the table over on that.”
And with it, the GOP has shaken one of the cornerstones of good government and good law in North Carolina.