Raleigh, N.C. — State Attorney General Josh Stein and other law enforcement leaders are calling on lawmakers to restore funding cuts in the Attorney General's Office, but 45 positions have already been eliminated in the first round of cuts, including some expert attorneys.
The Department of Justice budget was unexpectedly slashed by a little over $10 million in the final Republican-penned budget deal, which passed at the end of June.
Stein said the 45 positions cut Wednesday made up about $3.5 million of that total, and another $3.5 million – about 40 positions – will be covered by funding raised from client agencies, departments and boards to which the Attorney General's Office provides legal services. The remaining $3 million still must be cut unless lawmakers restore funding.
Some of those cut were attorneys with decades of experience, such as Gerald Robbins, who described the cuts as "out of the blue." He's an attorney who assisted the state's Child Support Collection program and others at the Department of Health and Human Services.
"I’m out of a job. It’s that simple," Robbins said. "I’ve put 23 years of my life in this office representing public health entities, and I received a letter yesterday that said your position, and the funding for your position, is no longer available."
His departure will cut the staff for public health counsel from three to two.
"They’ll get less services, and the timeliness of those services, I would anticipate, would be even less," Robbins said.
Stein said the cuts will force the Attorney General's Office to push some work, such as certain appellate cases, onto local district attorneys. Pitt County District Attorney Kimberly Robb, president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said it will be difficult for offices that are already understaffed to pick up extra work.
"I think this is going to be a seismic shift for our offices," Robb said. "Right now, we are on the front lines. We are trial attorneys, we are not appellate attorneys. ... Anything that takes us away from those primary responsibilities is dangerous if we're not adequately funded."
"We have so many cases," agreed Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. "We work very hard in the trial court to do the best we can to defend the public. But as soon as that case is over, it is time to move on to the next case. We are underfunded and understaffed, and we really can’t take on this additional burden."
The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association and the North Carolina Police Chiefs' Association have also sent letters to legislative leaders, asking them to reverse the cuts. The Attorney General's Office provides legal advice, training and coordination of multi-jurisdictional cases, as well as cases where local prosecutors have a conflict of interest.
"As we continue to see new threats, new crimes, new dangers across North Carolina, we’re in a situation where we need more help and not less," said Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema. "So, we support the return of funding to the AG’s office."
Wednesday's cuts will mean about 45 appeals cases a year, mostly minor, will be sent back to local districts. But Stein warned the next round of cuts would have even more dire consequences, laying off lawyers who work to keep dangerous criminals behind bars.
"What I'm telling you today is we can't do the last third," Stein said. "The last third will put too much damage, too much risk on the public's safety. For that reason, we are repeating our call to the General Assembly: Please, protect the people of North Carolina, and find a way to fill this gap."
House Speaker Tim Moore said Thursday afternoon that he doesn't believe the cuts will pose any risk to public safety. He suggested lawmakers might take action to limit the Attorney General's Office to criminal justice work only and put attorneys back into agencies to handle civil counsel work. That would reverse actions taken several years ago by Republican lawmakers to move most agency attorneys under the Attorney General's Office for efficiency reasons.
"The last thing the attorney general should be cutting is anything on the criminal side. That's his main mission," Moore, R-Cleveland, said. "We believe there are adequate resources there for the Attorney General's Office to do that job."
"We're coming back later this month. We may do some other adjustments," Moore said. "There have been some overtures made of ways to try to restore some funding, but we'll see if those conversations continue."
If they do, it'll be likely be too late for Robbins. His employment ends Aug. 31.
"As lawyers, we’re Type A personalities. You identify yourself by your job," he said. "My job won’t be here in a month."
Robbins said the loss to the Department of Justice goes beyond the cuts. He said several very experienced attorneys have left in the past month for private-sector jobs because of the uncertainty in the state office.
His job was not a partisan position, he said, and he predicts the cuts will make it harder for the department and other state agencies to attract nonpartisan professional staff in the future.
"You didn’t worry about who was a Republican, who was a Democrat. You worried about the facts of the case. Now, every year, when it comes budget time, are you worried about somebody being upset with a person, or are you going to be allowed to do your job? We just don’t know at this point," Robbins said. "Will this happen again? It happened once. What’s going to prevent it from happening again?"