Durham County

Are the governor and attorney general punished for being Democrats? Here’s what Durham’s Mickey Michaux thinks

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is pictured in a Feb. 22 file photo.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is pictured in a Feb. 22 file photo. AP

While many Republican-led institutions saw spending increases in times of fiscal plenty this year, Gov. Roy Cooper was forced to make significant cuts that critics of the GOP-controlled legislature say were designed to punish the state’s top Democrat.

Cooper and the governor’s Democratic successor as attorney general, Josh Stein, faced surprise blanket reductions within the final state budget approved this summer. Republicans have criticized them for failing to take on litigation or for opposing GOP legislation.

Cooper’s cuts were “punishment for him being a Democrat — and winning” last November, said Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, the top budget-writer when Democrats led the House. A top Republican disagrees.

Unlike the more than 40 lawyers and staff that Stein said last month he had to lay off to address part of a $10 million cut, Cooper avoided giving out pink slips to meet nearly $1 million in operating reductions in his smaller office.

The governor shifted seven workers from his more than 60 positions to other Cabinet-level departments he leads, Cooper’s office said. Those employees were transferred to positions earmarked in the departments for policymaking staff to perform “agency projects and administration projects,” spokesman Ford Porter said. Two other positions Cooper eliminated were vacant.

With smaller cuts to travel, postage and supplies, Cooper’s office said he’s fulfilled the “administrative reductions” of $979,000, or about 17 percent of the $5.8 million originally estimated to keep the office running at recent levels. When higher funding for salaries, benefits and association dues are included, taxpayer funding for Cooper’s office fell 7 percent, according to budget documents.

Stein said his cuts would reduce the effectiveness of his office to prosecute criminals. Julia White, a deputy chief of staff for Cooper, said it’s unclear whether the roughly 15 percent workforce reduction in the governor’s office will affect its ability to serve citizens.

“The governor will keep doing his job. The work continues even if the number of people to do it decreases,” White said in an interview.

The reshuffled employees were mostly lower- or mid-level staffers. One is the facilities manager for the Executive Mansion, who is now employed by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, according to Cooper’s office.

GOP legislative leaders have made clear the cuts to Stein’s department were related to their unhappiness with how he’s done his job. Cooper said in June he assumed the cuts to his office were for “political spite or something.”

Senate leader Phil Berger said that’s not the case with Cooper, with whom he’s often battled in the courts in recent months over legislation that the governor has challenged.

“I bear no animosity to the governor,” Berger said, attributing the reduction to simply finding savings that wouldn’t prevent Cooper’s office from performing core functions. But he said the way the governor handled the reductions affirms there were savings to be found.

“Moving folks around in the way that was done — that’s time-honored tradition in (the) Democratic executive branch,” Berger said.

Reductions for Stein and Cooper weren’t included in either the House and Senate versions of the budget approved in the spring. The cuts occurred although the final budget left $500 million unspent when the fiscal year ends next June.

The budget saw significant increases to the agriculture department run by Republican commissioner Steve Troxler and the insurance department led by Republican commissioner Mike Causey. General Assembly funding has steadily increased over the past five years.

Separately, the budget moved from Cooper’s office to the Department of Public Instruction a $2 million grant program for school districts with innovative career and college prep initiatives.