New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino
New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino ()

Among the myriad topics New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino was asked to address by lawmakers Wednesday was the Department of Law and Public Safety’s proposed budget reductions, and how that might square with outside legal fees.

“We feel that we have what we need to meet our current mission,” Porrino testified before the Assembly Budget Committee. “We always strive to do more with less. That’s just what we do. That’s what I did in private practice, and that’s what we do now.”

Gov. Chris Christie’s fiscal 2018 budget proposes a 3.5 percent reduction for the department, to $433.4 million from the adjusted 2017 budget of $449.2 million.

The budget numbers “come back to your ability to function, and the mission that’s in front of you, which is considerable,” committee vice chairman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said. “As a state budget committee, we always prefer to be spending less, but … do you have what you need?”

Burzichelli asked whether the department’s outside counsel costs might escalate if other budget lines decreased.

“I say that recognizing that you can’t house every [legal] discipline you need to pursue everything you’re supposed to pursue,” Burzichelli added.

“On outside counsel, we’re down year-over-year,” Porrino said.

That’s true, according to data provided to the Law Journal by Attorney General’s Office spokesman Lee Moore: Outside counsel spend for calendar 2016 was $28 million, down 7.6 percent from $30.3 million in 2015, and down 9.7 percent from $31 million in 2014. The department doesn’t make outside counsel budget projections for future years, Moore said.

Porrino testified that bringing more lawyers in-house wouldn’t necessarily result in lower legal fees.

“The matters handled by outside counsel are not matters that, if we hired 50 more lawyers in the Division of Law, we could handle in the Division of Law,” Porrino told the committee. “We would just increase our head count and, I suspect, still have the same outside counsel requirements.”

Later in the hearing, Porrino—at the urging of Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio, D-Mercer, herself an attorney—promised to provide the committee with a list of cases for which outside counsel was retained in 2016 and 2017, and the costs for each of those matters.

“There are some cases that by default go to outside counsel,” he said, pointing to medical malpractice cases and bond issues as examples.

Porrino was also pushed on projected settlement revenues—$75 million for fiscal 2018, compared with an adjusted estimate of $140 million for fiscal 2017, it was noted—but declined to identify specific matters that might settle, and for how much.

“That would give our adversaries information they might not otherwise have,” Porrino said.

A variety of other topics arose during the two-and-a-half-hour session, though two topics garnering substantial discussion were the new bail system in New Jersey and the Christie administration’s efforts to curb opioid pain medication abuse.

“I’m not hearing anywhere that prosecutor’s offices were not able to make this work,” Porrino said in response to questions about whether the new bail system would require additional funding to accommodate the bail hearings. “It’s not for me to decide whether additional dollars will be appropriated.”

The new process, adopted by statute, implements a risk-assessment evaluation for the court rather than money-based bail.

On opioids, Porrino noted that the law limiting prescriptions to a five-day supply—signed into law in February after a regulation imposing the same stricture already had been promulgated—is set to take effect next month.

“We’re prosecuting drug dealers and doctors who are acting like drug dealers,” and enforcing regulations civilly, he told the committee.

“We have taken licensure action against more medical professionals in the last year than in the history of the Department of Law and Public Safety as it relates to indiscriminate prescribing,” he added.

Porrino acknowledged that the prescription limitations were met with “some fairly angry associations on behalf of the medical profession,” and said it has “unfortunately complicated … [medical] practices a bit.”

But he said he believes “the medical profession is adapting” to the stricture.

“At the end of the day, people are dying,” Porrino said. “Something had to be done.”

Porrino also talked up the department’s efforts to round up the state’s most dangerous fugitives; as of Wednesday, there had been 229 apprehensions, he said.

“That’s 229 separate investigations; that’s 229 knocks on the door—or knocking down the door, as the case may be,” he testified.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first in a series the Legislature will be hosting as it attempts to pass a statewide budget.