North Carolina's Democratic attorney general on Thursday responded to budget cuts imposed by Republican lawmakers by laying off about 9 percent of his agency's attorneys and telling local prosecutors they'll have to take over more courtroom tasks.
This week's layoffs of 23 lawyers from the state payroll and nearly an equal number of support staff represent a third of the required $10 million cut, Attorney General Josh Stein said. He's lining up promises from other state agencies, boards and commissions to shift another $3.5 million to help cover salaries. Stein also is asking lawmakers to restore the remaining $3 million.
"The work that we do is protecting taxpayers. It's about keeping prisoners behind bars and it's about prosecuting criminals of serious crime. With these cuts, we will no longer be able to do that work as effectively," Stein said.
Despite objections from police chiefs and district attorneys, the cut to Stein's state Justice Department was inserted into the final version of the state budget just hours before lawmakers approved the package in June.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's office operations were also cut by nearly $1 million. The governor and Republican leaders have been fighting since before Cooper took office, and many of their fights have ended up in court.
Senate leader Phil Berger said after the day the budget was approved that cutting Stein's department was related to his refusal to take up some cases and launching other initiatives that legislators didn't like. The state budget also contained language giving legislative leaders, not Stein, the right to make final decisions involving lawsuits challenging state laws or Constitution.
Berger said Thursday there are no plans to restore the $3 million Stein has yet to cut.
"We think that he has adequate funding to address those things that the Constitution and the law require him to do. He has chosen not to do some things that the law requires him to do, and we don't think that he ought to be paid for things that he's not doing," said Berger, a Republican from Eden.
Stein indicated he would continue to use his legal discretion on which cases to pursue.
"I'm the attorney general of North Carolina and I was elected by the people of this state," he said.
House Speaker Tim Moore said lawmakers are working on legislation to let agencies hire their own in-house lawyers for civil matters, shifting that work from Stein's office. But Stein has enough money to handle criminal cases, Moore said.
"He has adequate resources, very adequate resources to take care of those issues," the Republican from Kings Mountain said.
Besides the layoffs, Stein notified the state's district attorneys they'll have to take on hundreds of new cases per year.
Local prosecutors will have to handle initial criminal appeals for cases involving misdemeanors and probation revocations and the 800 cases per year of inmates appealing their own cases, Stein said. State attorneys also will be able to take on fewer complex cases at the request of DAs, Stein said.