Opinion

Editorial: Attorney General Josh Stein bullied by budget cuts

The latest target of the Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly is a former colleague whose only sin is that he won the office of state Attorney General over a Republican opponent.

Attorney General Josh Stein was a respected member of the state Senate, and prior to that service he’d been in charge of consumer protection in the Attorney General’s Office, focusing on protecting average North Carolinians from consumer fraud, gambling interests, payday lenders, etc. He was, in other words, highly qualified to be the AG.

His former colleagues can’t dispute that — but they can punish Stein for being a Democrat, which is what they’re doing in voting for a recurring $10 million budget cut to his office, and doing so suddenly and without even giving Stein a chance to talk to them about it.

This is preposterous, and it’s also going to be harmful to the people of North Carolina in all sorts of ways. Stein’s office enumerates how the cut will affect the ability of the AG to take up the interests of all North Carolinians:

— Some 123 full-time employees will have to be fired. Most are attorneys who do the people’s work.

— Tasks such as dealing with Medicaid fraud and other litigation now in progress will be seriously hampered.

— Those suing the state will have an advantage because a staff shortage will increase the likelihood of damages being awarded against the state.

— District attorneys all over North Carolina who request help from the AG won’t be able to get it, and that help is often needed in very important cases involving “significant” crime or public safety.

— Stein’s office currently handles 650 criminal appeals each year; it won’t be able to handle all such appeals if the budget is cut. That means the tasks will go back to local district attorneys, who already are understaffed.

— Loss of attorneys, Stein’s office says, will mean the state will be hampered in defending itself against lawsuits by prisoners, or the award of money for condemnations connected to highway construction or civil rights cases. The state could potentially lose millions of dollars in such lawsuits.

— A number of departments would lose at the minimum a degree of legal help they now get from the AG — the State Treasurer, the Banking Commission, the NC Education Lottery, the Office of Administrative Hearings and others.

If lawmakers had some evidence that the AG’s office was fat with personnel, a look-see might be warranted. But even that would mean a study, not a sudden budget cut. The truth is, however, that the growth in the state Department of Justice reflects the state’s growth, and the increasingly complex world of litigation.

Republicans on Jones Street just want to bully Stein — an up-and-comer in state politics — to show him who’s boss. And to do that, they’re willing to hurt an agency that serves all North Carolinians, often in cases that are non-partisan and about protecting taxpayers, in addition to those duties that safeguard the interests of consumers who might otherwise be taken advantage of by unscrupulous interests.

The GOP needs to back away from this silly and transparent maneuver right now.

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