State Politics

NC lawmakers want to prohibit AG Josh Stein from shifting work after surprise budget cut

NC Attorney General Josh Stein, center, said he had to cut about 45 workers from his department due to budget cuts during a press conference held in his offices in Raleigh on Aug. 3, 2017. He is flanked by district attorneys and law enforcement agency representatives.
NC Attorney General Josh Stein, center, said he had to cut about 45 workers from his department due to budget cuts during a press conference held in his offices in Raleigh on Aug. 3, 2017. He is flanked by district attorneys and law enforcement agency representatives. N&O file photo

State lawmakers who targeted Attorney General Josh Stein earlier this year with surprise budget cuts now have a proposal to dictate how the Democrat handles appeals of criminal cases.

In August, after $10 million was cut from his budget, Stein announced that he had eliminated 45 positions in his office, and because of that he said he would have to shift work on some criminal appeals to district attorneys’ offices across the state.

Stein planned to continue to handle appeals on driving-while-impaired cases that can be complicated and have sweeping effects on other cases, but shift the responsibility for appeals of misdemeanor crimes and probation cases to prosecutors who are not used to handling such cases.

Now a proposed mandate tucked into a larger budget-related bill would prohibit Stein from farming that work out to anyone outside his office, and the Republican lawmakers behind it said on Wednesday that it was because they had heard from many district attorneys that they were not equipped to take on the work.

District attorneys and law enforcement organizations urged lawmakers earlier this year to reconsider the cuts to Stein’s office.

Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, said at a committee meeting Wednesday night on the budget proposal the cuts to Stein and the instructions for how he is to handle his workload are motivated more by politics.

“We could fix the issue for our local district attorneys by providing the funds,” Jackson told his colleagues in the state House committee weighing the budget changes before voting against the proposed mandate and other budget changes. “We just don’t like what he’s done.”

Stein, a former state senator, has taken stands against partisan gerrymandering, spoken out against the 2013 elections overhaul that was recently struck down in federal court and been on the opposite side of Republicans he used to work alongside in a General Assembly that’s seen key provisions of its agenda challenged in the courts.

“Earlier this year, our office requested six additional criminal appellate attorneys to help keep convicted criminals behind bars,” Stein’s spokeswoman Laura Brewer said in a statement issued Wednesday. “We made that request before the legislature stripped the Department of Justice budget of $10 million and forced the department to eliminate 45 positions, including three criminal appeals positions. If the legislature is going to create this new mandate, the Attorney General calls on the legislature to restore the cut it made to the department and ensure the public’s safety.”

Lawmakers have defended the cuts, saying they thought the attorney general’s office was bloated with extra staff.

When asked about Stein’s plans to shift work to district attorneys, House Speaker Tim Moore responded in August that he thought the attorney general had the resources to handle the criminal appeals.

“We believe the resources are there for the attorney general to fully take care of the criminal issues in North Carolina,” Moore said at the time. “We also believe that some of the civil work the attorney general’s office does can be moved to those other agencies. So the last thing the attorney general needs to do is to do anything that impedes with the criminal justice process. He has adequate resources, very adequate resources to take care of those issues.”

The full House and state Senate have not taken up the proposal. The lawmakers return to session on Thursday.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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