Raleigh, N.C. — More than 100 lawyers who work for the state may soon be out of work because Republican lawmakers made deep cuts to the personnel budget of the Attorney General's Office.
The $10 million cut will affect about half of the attorneys in the office, who handle appeals in criminal cases and pursue Medicaid fraud, scammers and polluters.
"I don't know why they did it," Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein said Tuesday. "It is irresponsible. It's going to hurt the people of North Carolina. There is no good policy justification for it, so I think – the only thing I can come up with is it's some political spite."
Stein was a frequent foil to Republican legislative leaders as a state senator. Since his election as attorney general last fall, he withdrew the appeal of a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down North Carolina's voter ID law, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to leave the 4th Circuit's ruling in place.
"When the attorney general refuses to do his job and defend laws he is obligated to defend, it's the General Assembly's prerogative to divert a portion of his budget to benefit other state employees who will do their jobs," Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said in a statement defending the budget cut.
Stein said his job is to serve the entire state, not just lawmakers.
"Our job is to keep people safe, to keep them safe from crime, to keep them safe from pollution, to keep them safe from taxpayer fraud. That's what we do here. It doesn't have a D after it; it doesn't have an R after it," he said. "I may make decisions that they disagree with. They certainly make decisions that I disagree with. But disagreements are not a justification for putting the people of North Carolina at risk."
Local district attorneys will have to pick up the work the Attorney General's Office cannot handle because of limited staffing, but officials said the local offices don't have enough staff either.
"It is not helpful to burden overworked DAs who are in trial every day with handling different types of appeals, but if we don’t have the ability to do the work, then we’re going to have to come up with solutions," Stein said.
Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said local offices rely on the work the Attorney General's Office provides.
"District attorneys’ offices have not historically handled criminal appeals or post-conviction litigation in capital cases," Dorer said in a statement. "At this point, we do not know how this critical work will be handled, as DA offices do not have the resources to absorb the duties."
Carver said legislators set aside extra money in the state budget to hire an extra 31 assistant district attorneys across the state to help ease the workload.
Stein said he hopes that lawmakers undo the budget cut when they return to session in August. Meanwhile, he's talking with state agencies, the University of North Carolina system, the Conference of District Attorneys and other groups his office works for in case they can help cover some of the cuts.
Gov. Roy Cooper's budget director Charlie Perusse said his office is working with Stein "to manage this difficult budget situation."
"This almost 40% cut imposed by the General Assembly will undoubtedly impact important legal services and compromise public safety and the environment," Perusse said in an email, noting that the budget includes a $499 million surplus.