Raleigh, N.C. — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger on Thursday defended a deep cut to the legal staff in the office of state Attorney General Josh Stein. But Stein says he doesn't believe lawmakers understand the repercussions of the move.
A provision that appeared out of nowhere in the final budget deal late Monday night would require a cut of $10 million from the budget lines in the Department of Justice that cover the attorney general's legal and administrative staff. While the budget for the overall department is more than $80 million, the specified lines from which the cut must come amount to about $27 million, supporting 254 state-funded positions.
Cutting $10 million, Stein said Thursday morning, will mean laying off 123 attorneys.
"Those are special prosecutors who help local district attorneys prosecute some of the most complex and serious crimes in the state. They are the lawyers who specialize in criminal appeals to keep murderers and rapists behind bars," Stein said. "If I am forced to lay off half of my criminal lawyers because of this draconian cut, the state will be less safe."
Stein added that other lawyers who would be laid off would be those who defend the state from lawsuits and settlements that could hit taxpayers in the pocketbook. He said the cut is also opposed by the state associations of police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys.
"I am working with the legislature right now, asking them to revisit these cuts, because I don’t believe they understood the consequences of just how grave this is going to be for the people of North Carolina," he said.
However, Berger said he doesn't believe the cuts will be as deep or as damaging as Stein says. Asked for the reasoning behind the cut, he said Republican leaders don't agree with how Stein, a Democrat, is doing his job.
"The attorney general’s job is to represent his client, and his client is the state of North Carolina, and in many respects, it's the state of North Carolina as represented by the elected representatives of the state," Berger said at a Thursday news conference. "There have been instances where the attorney general seems to believe that that’s not his job, that his job is to do whatever he thinks is appropriate.
"We have again looked at his budget, looked at those things that he is charged constitutionally and statutorily with doing, and believe that the funding level is more than adequate for him to be able to do his job," Berger concluded.
Democrats called that assertion absurd.
"I would challenge you to find a law enforcement agency in this state that tells you, 'I can take a 35 percent cut, have two weeks to prepare for it – two weeks to prepare for it – and I can function at the same capacity,'" said Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee at a separate news conference.
"I don’t think anybody could take an operating budget of $27 million and cut $10 million of personnel out of that budget and be able do the same job," agreed House Minority Leader Darren Jackson. "The cuts to Attorney General Stein are petty. They’re partisan, and they’re completely unworkable."
The budget cleared the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon and is in Gov. Roy Cooper's hands. He has until July 2 to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
Stein, a former senator, narrowly defeated former Republican Sen. Buck Newton in a bitterly fought campaign for attorney general in 2016.