Legislative leaders urge Leandro judge to cut spending number to $377 million

Attorney Matthew Tilley argues on behalf of N.C. legislative leaders during a Leandro court hearing. (Image from WRAL.com pool coverage)

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  • Legislative leaders call for new Leandro Judge James Ammons to slice the state's education spending obligation from $677 million to $377 million.
  • Lawmakers object to a court ordering the state to spend any additional money for education-related items. It also takes issue with "the math" put forward by lawyers from the N.C. Justice Department.
  • Ammons will consider competing arguments about the spending numbers during a hearing Friday in Raleigh.

State legislative leaders want the new judge in the Leandro lawsuit to cut the case’s outstanding education spending obligation to $377 million. That’s $300 million less than other parties in the case have recommended.

In addition to a lower spending number, lawmakers filed paperwork Wednesday urging Judge James Ammons to take no other action in the case.  Ammons has scheduled a hearing Friday in Raleigh. He’ll address the Leandro parties’ competing arguments about the spending numbers.

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to address other Leandro issues in the months ahead. That includes a decision about whether Ammons could force state officials to transfer money from the state treasury without legislative approval.

Ammons set a deadline of noon Wednesday for all parties to address one Leandro issue. He cited an order from the state’s highest court. “On remand, we narrowly direct the trial court to recalculate the appropriate distributions in light of the State’s 2022 Budget,”

The phrase “appropriate distributions” refers to how much money the state still owes for Leandro obligations. An earlier judge in the Leandro case ordered $1.75 billion in additional state spending in November 2021. Since that order, Gov. Roy Cooper has signed two state budget bills into law. Both included provisions that addressed some Leandro-related items.

In April 2022, a temporary Leandro presiding judge cut the initial $1.75 billion figure back to $785 million. Now state officials estimate the current Leandro spending obligation is $677 million.

Lawyers from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s state Justice Department filed paperwork Wednesday confirming that figure. State government lawyers highlight calculations from the Office of State Budget and Management. OSBM cites Leandro obligations of nearly $510 million for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, $134 million for the Department of Health and Human Services, and $34 million for the University of North Carolina System.

Plaintiffs in the case filed documents accepting the state’s calculations. Only legislative leaders disputed the numbers.

Lawmakers object to a court ordering the state to spend any money for a multiyear Leandro plan, officially called the comprehensive remedial plan. State government’s executive branch worked with plaintiffs to develop the plan with a San Francisco-based education consultant. The General Assembly played no role in that process.

“Although Legislative Intervenors maintain that the orders requiring the State to implement
and fund the CRP were issued in error, it has reviewed OSBM’s calculations and determined that, even as a purely mathematical exercise, those calculations are wrong,” wrote attorney Matthew Tilley.

Legislators cite two reasons for disputing the $677 million figure. “First, OSBM has failed to include various categories of money that were appropriated for items listed in the CRP as part of the State Budget,” Tilley wrote. “Second, and more fundamentally, OSBM has incorrectly ‘double counted’ many of the items.”

The original $1.75 billion focused on funding the second and third years of the comprehensive remedial plan. Lawmakers argue that the current budget year marks year three of the plan. Recurring expenditures included in both the second and third year of the plan should be counted only once as Ammons moves forward, lawmakers argued.

“In addition to addressing these issues involving ‘the math,’ Legislative Intervenors also
submit this brief to address the scope of the Court’s review now that the writ of prohibition has been reinstated,” Tilley wrote.

The “writ of prohibition,” originally put in place by the N.C. Court of Appeals and recently restored by the state Supreme Court, blocks the Leandro trial judge from ordering money moved from the state treasury to meet Leandro obligations.

“[T]he writ prohibits this Court from ordering a transfer, even if [it] were to immediately stay its order pending appeal,” Tilley wrote. “Thus, the Court must limit its inquiry to just a recalculation of the remaining amounts allegedly necessary to fund Years 2 and 3 of the CRP.”

Legislative leaders note the unusual role state government lawyers play in this case. While Stein’s N.C. Justice Department lawyers purport to represent “the state,” they represent only its executive branch, Tilley wrote.

“The Executive Branch stands to gain from these proceedings since a ruling for the Plaintiffs would result in billions in additional funding for Executive Branch agencies without the need for legislative approval,” he wrote. “It therefore is important to recognize that, while the Attorney General has taken the extraordinary step of siding with the Plaintiffs in seeking the entry of orders against the State (and thus its own clients), it does not speak for, or have the power to bind, ‘the State’ as a whole.”

“Further, Plaintiffs and the Attorney General cannot circumvent the Separation of Powers — or eliminate the need to secure legislative approval before changing statutes or drawing money from the Treasury — merely by ‘consenting’ to measures that can only be accomplished by a vote of the people’s popularly elected representatives in the General Assembly,” Tilley added.

As for the numbers, legislative leaders would reduce the money targeted toward DPI from $509,701,707 to $277,814,002. New funding heading toward DHHS would drop from $133.9 million to $81.85 million. The UNC System’s cut would fall from $34.2 million to $18.1 million.

Ammons will consider the competing numbers Friday. Meanwhile, it’s unclear when the state Supreme Court will address outstanding Leandro issues again.