North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein’s most important job is to keep people safe.
For the Department of Justice, which he heads, that can mean helping to keep criminals behind bars, protecting residents’ drinking water, going after healthcare providers engaged in Medicaid fraud and protecting consumers from unfair business practices.
DOJ attorneys also work with and represent numerous state agencies in contentious legal battles. They help district attorneys with complicated cases or conflicts of interest in special prosecutions.
That may soon change. In a last minute surprise move, the General Assembly slashed DOJ’s budget by $10 million.
By several measures, $10 million is a lot of money. It’s how much Netflix pays comedian Chelsea Handler for her talk show; it’s the production budget for each episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones; it’s the estimated value of the jewelry that was stolen from reality star Kim Kardashian while she was in Paris last year.
And, most importantly, $10 million also amounts to roughly 37% of the DOJ’s legal and administrative budget – the area from which lawmakers have specified that the cut must come. It is, in short, a big cut that will have even bigger consequences for the DOJ and every North Carolinian remotely interested in public safety.
“There’s no way for this office to absorb $10 million in cuts without it affecting the work we do keeping people safe,” Stein said in an interview at his office Friday.
Stein and others at the DOJ are trying to come up with a responsible plan to minimize the impacts on the people they serve, but it’s no easy task. He’s started asking agencies the DOJ provides services to for money to help with the massive budget cut.
The bulk of what DOJ does involves providing legal services to state agencies to serve the people of the state, Stein said. The Department handles (among many other things) all criminal appeals for district attorneys, all special prosecutions for district attorneys, all prisoner petitions to help the state Court of Appeals and represents the state Department of Labor in Occupational Safety and Health Division hearings.
“We provide these legal services and we’re asking the agencies and entities who benefit from our legal services to help us try to fill this gap,” Stein said. “Either we find some new [funding] or we eliminate positions.”
He estimated that dozens of employees would lose their job but said he hopes it won’t be more than 100.
“If we just absorb the cut, it will be about 120 people, but our hope is that some of our client agencies will step up,” he added.
There are approximately 407 positions in Legal Services, according to spokeswoman Laura Brewer. That figure represents the number of positions including attorneys, paralegal, clerical, consumer protection specialists and investigators, and includes any vacancies that exist.
Peg Dorer, Director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said they don’t have an official statement yet on how prosecutors across the state could be affected.
She did say they received notice from Stein’s office letting them know that they will: “1. Be unable to continue handling all criminal appeals; 2. Be limited in the number of conflict cases they can accept for prosecution; 3. Be unable to defend prosecutors in civil suits against them; and 4. Be unable to continue representing the State in any pending or future motion for appropriate relief proceedings in the Superior Court for capital cases.”
“Since they handle all the appeals for the state and all of the post-conviction for capital cases, we are not sure how this is going to get done,” Dorer said in an email. “We do not have additional resources to put toward this work.”
In addition to all its other duties, the DOJ handles really big, complicated matters for the state. One example of that is a pending lawsuit in which retired teachers and state employees, including former Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, are suing the State Health Plan and State Treasurer Dale Folwell.
Stein represents both the State Health Plan and Folwell in that matter, and there is more than $100 million at stake.
Folwell’s office declined to comment about how the DOJ budget cut would affect his office.
Of course, that’s not the only major case with a lot of money involved. Stein said a recent report shows the DOJ is handling active cases valued at more than $300 million.
“Obviously we’re going to still be able to do those big cases, but are we going to be able to do them as well?” he asked. “Are we going to be able to provide the level of representation that the taxpayer deserves to protect their wallet? And that’s the risk that the General Assembly has put on the people of this state.”
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore did not return an email requesting a comment about the DOJ budget cut.
Democratic Leader, Sen. Dan Blue, said in a radio interview with NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon that the budget cut was not only a surprise, it was a shock.
“In taking $10 million out of the Attorney General’s Office, they have determined that fighting crime is not as important a priority as it was before,” he said.
Blue said that kind of cut is impossible for Stein to make up in other ways.
“He can’t adjust the workload on the other attorneys in the office to the extent that would be necessary for him to continue providing the service to the DA’s around the state,” he said.
Stein and Blue both speculated that the budget cut was politically motivated.
“It was a spite move against the AG because they didn’t like the fact that he’s being a lawyer,” Blue said.
Stein said he’s heard that lawmakers are unhappy with him carrying out the duties of the office.
“My job as attorney general is to protect the people of this state and that’s what I’m doing, that’s what the lawyers in this office are doing,” Stein said, “and I think it’s unfortunate when people of different political parties allow their differences of opinion to undermine the public interest.”
He said DOJ employees are nervous and that they have reason to be, but they’re also professionals who are working hard.
“People come to work here because they want to help the people of this state; they want to serve the public,” Stein said. “Most of these folks could go work for private law firms and go make more money but they made a choice in their career that they wanted to be a public lawyer, not a private lawyer, and it’s really demoralizing when the legislature rather than valuing them and thanking them for their dedicated public service jeopardizes their ability to do the work that they care about.”
Melissa Boughton is the Courts and Law Reporter for NC Policy Watch.