Bar News - May 13, 2011
State Budget Impacts Wide-Reaching
By: Dan R. Wise
AG Will Eliminate Consumer Protection
At press time, Attorney General Michael Delaney was awaiting word on whether the Senate Finance Committee will go along with the deep cuts that will trigger major cuts in the functions of the NH Department of Justice.
At a mid-April hearing before the panel, Delaney did not get much encouragement that more money would be added to his budget, which was subjected to a 15 percent cut from the governor’s proposal (which was 95 percent of the previous year’s spending). Delaney enumerated to senators that he has to protect the statutory functions of the department and those positions funded by non-General Fund sources. That leaves several major, very visible areas of the Department of Justice that will be vulnerable. Delaney outlined the following consequences of the reduced spending level recommended by the House:
Delaney said the criminal and civil bureaus would each lose three attorney positions, and the environmental protection bureau (which receives some dedicated funding from DES) would be cut from six to four attorneys.
- Dismantling of the Consumer Protection Division. The unit fields approximately 4,000 complaints per year. The funding cut would eliminate all of the paralegal positions in the Consumer Protection unit, and that, in turn, would eliminate the support needed for 20 volunteers who staff telephone hotlines for the department. Approximately $600,000 in restitution for consumers recovered through mediation would be lost; the department would no longer oversee registration of condominiums and subdivisions, distributorships, buying clubs, health clubs, martial arts schools, and automatic telephone dialers. Some functions of the department would be transferred to other units of the Justice Department.
- Criminal bureau would discontinue or reduce investigation and prosecution of economic crimes, cybercrimes, threats of harm to public officials, public integrity investigations of public officials, and training of law enforcement officers and prosecutors. It would continue to serve its statutory responsibilities of investigating and prosecuting homicides, as well as Medicaid fraud and drug crimes, where there are grant-funding or recovery options.
- Civil bureau would discontinue its preventive services to 125 agencies, boards, commissions and counsels, and no longer review contracts prior to consideration by the Governor and Executive Council. Delaney said that the remaining staff would only be handling litigation, without providing the risk-management advice and client counseling for state agencies that can prevent litigation.
- Environmental protection bureau would discontinue prosecution of environmental crimes and serving as counsel to Fish & Game Department.
He also indicated that the increased workload of the criminal bureau, if the proposed expansion of the death penalty to include murders during home invasions is made law, is not accounted for in the budget.
Lastly, Delaney warned senators that many of the attorneys he would have to lay off were appointed for specific terms by the governor and executive council. Delaney said there is court precedent in NH that could form the basis for lawsuits by displaced attorneys to fight those layoffs.
Corrections: Senators Propose Closing Prison Units,
Sending 600 Inmates Out of State
On April 28, the Senate Finance Committee voted 7-1 to recommend the state send up to 600 prisoners to out-of-state corrections facilities. According to the NH Union Leader, the State Employees Association projects the proposal will mean the loss of about 250 jobs in the department.
Rewriting the Corrections Department’s budget, the Senate Finance Committee aims to reduce expenditures by forcing it to close down several units of the state prison, but it rejected a proposal by Corrections Department Commissioner William Wrenn that he close the Berlin minimum-security prison.
At a budget hearing earlier last month, Sen. Finance Committee Chair Chuck Morse bluntly told Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn that the department’s plan to meet budget cuts by closing the Berlin prison was "a non-starter."
Senate Finance members indicated that they did not approve of this idea and encouraged him to find other ways to address the cutbacks. Under discussion is the idea of privatizing some services or closing portions of New Hampshire’s prisons to lower the Corrections department’s operating costs.
The NH Union Leader report quoted a state employee union official who said lawmakers have privately indicated that it might be possible to send some inmates from closed units to a for-profit prison provider outside the state.
NH Legal Assistance: Offices, Staff Will Be Cut in Half
Eric Herr, chair of the Judicial Council, through which state funding for NH Legal Assistance has flowed, pleaded with the Senate Finance Committee last month to reconsider the NH House’s elimination of $1.6 million in funding proposed by the Governor for NH Legal Assistance.
Herr said "the rule of law really does matter" and that many vulnerable people would lack advocacy. NHLA Director John Tobin said many of NHLA’s cases result in recoveries of state benefits paid to recipients through increased child support payments, Medicare, and social security benefit payments. Tobin says four of NHLA’s seven offices around the state will be closed and the number of staff halved if the state appropriations are lost.