Raleigh, N.C. — An unexplained cut to the Department of Justice within the final Republican-penned budget deal being voted on this week would mean deep cuts to legal and administrative staff in the office of Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein.
The recurring cut, described in the document known as the budget's "money report" as a "management flexibility reduction," is $10,027,276. That amounts to about 11 percent of the agency's overall budget, part of which comes from revenue received by the department. Looking specifically at the portion of the agency budget that comes from the state's general fund, it's a cut of more than 18 percent, similar to that imposed on the office of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The cut was in neither the House nor the Senate proposals, appearing only in the final committee compromise.
However, a spokeswoman for Stein says the language of the budget provision bans the DOJ from moving any money or positions from the budgets of the State Crime Lab or Criminal Justice Training and Standards, which leaves only two line items that can be cut: administrative and legal services.
"Those two funds include a total of 254 positions. A $10 million cut to those positions equates to 123 jobs of those 254 jobs, which is 35 percent of the budget for legal and administrative positions in NCDOJ," agency spokeswoman Laura Brewer explained in an email. "So, it’s basically a 35 percent cut to the legal and administrative budgets – that includes attorneys in our criminal division (which puts a greater burden on DAs) and those who represent the state and protect taxpayers."
"Terminating this many attorneys on such short notice will cause significant disruption to ongoing litigation, with negative consequences for the state," a memo issued by the DOJ in response to the cut warns. "It will allow minimal time to attempt to transition hundreds of active cases from the attorneys being terminated. This will result in missed deadlines, litigation delays, defaults, negative court orders and awards of attorney fees against the state."
According to the memo, DOJ handles an average of 650 criminal appeals per year. The cuts, which will disproportionately affect criminal appellate attorneys and special prosecutors, will force the state to re-refer appeals to district attorneys' offices.
"DOJ’s ability to defend current lawsuits against the state will be threatened," the memo states.
In a statement, Stein called the cut "as irresponsible as it is short-sighted," and said he has contacted House and Senate leaders to ask them to reconsider.
"I am deeply troubled that the General Assembly would direct the Department of Justice to eliminate the attorneys who work to prosecute criminals and keep them behind bars, who save taxpayers millions of dollars by defending against frivolous suits, who keep corporate bad actors in line and who protect our clean air and water," Stein said in his statement.
Stein, a former state senator, won the attorney general's office in 2016 after a bitterly partisan fight against fellow state Sen. Buck Newton.
In House and Senate budget debates Wednesday, Democrats challenged the cut, but no Republican stood to explain or defend it.
"We will be sending 123 people home because we have cut the human capital of that office by 35 percent. That is insane," said Rep. Robert Reives II, D-Lee, an attorney, arguing that the office is not and should not be political.
"We cannot be this type of body. We cannot go in and tear up things that have been standing for 100, 200 years, because we don’t like the people that are running it. Can’t do that." Reives continued. "What does that accomplish? What does lowering the access that our people, our citizens have to justice, as criminal victims, as civil victims - what does that do?"
House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said the cut was "just because of partisan politics."
"Not one person will stand up and tell me that if Buck Newton had won that race, you’d be doing this. And that’s a shame. Shame on all of you. It’s not defensible." Jackson said, adding, "I hope this is a stunt you plan to fix in [the] technical corrections [bill]."
Jackson's comments were followed by extended remarks from House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and senior House budget chairman Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, but neither mentioned the cut.