The House and Senate budgets differ on how much to cut from education and Medicaid. But both chambers stand together about moving the State Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Public Safety.
The move would be controversial. Under the Department of Justice, the SBI reports to the attorney general, but the proposed move would put the agency under the governor’s control. Gov. Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper are political opponents. Cooper is expected to run against McCrory in 2016.
The SBI is also investigating members of the General Assembly in connection with the February coal ash spill; last week, the SBI announced it is still investigating North Carolina politicians over campaign donations from the video sweepstakes industry.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has criticized the SBI for releasing this information while the General Assembly debates whether to move the bureau. However, Noelle Talley, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said the timing of the announcements was based on a recent request.
“We typically confirm ongoing investigations when requested and we got a request this week. That particular investigation was requested by the U.S. attorney for the Eastern district of North Carolina, as well as the Wake County district attorney’s office,” Talley said.
The idea to bring the SBI under the administration’s auspices has been discussed since the 1970s, when the Department of Public Safety was created, said James Brunet, director of the Public Safety Leadership Initiative at N.C. State.
“North Carolina is somewhat unique in having the State Bureau of Investigations operate under the attorney general. Only a handful of other states have it set up that way, like Ohio and North Dakota,” Brunet said.
When the prospect of moving the SBI came up last year, McCrory was opposed to it. But according to a spokesman for the governor, McCrory does is taking no position on the issue.
Talley, of the DOJ, said the department is concerned about how the move would affect the independence of political investigations.
“We’re concerned that those types of investigations could be hampered by putting it under the governor and putting it in the position where the head of the SBI would be confirmed by the legislature,” Talley said. “They’ve had investigations of the past three governors’ offices and they’ve had investigations into several legislators over the years.”
McCrory’s office said the governor does not share this concern.
“The attorney general is an elected position and a political position, so by moving it from the attorney general to the DPS, the political status of reporting to an elected official would be the same,” said a spokesman for the governor. “There’s no difference.”
The N.C. Association of Police Chiefs and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association are opposed to moving the SBI.
“Right now, the bureau is one step away from the people,” said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association. “If it moves, it’ll be much further away from an elected official’s oversight. And it’ll be a part of a much larger executive branch, filled with departments that take up the governor’s time.”
Caldwell said moving the SBI to the DPS will create an inefficient bureau.
“Right now, the SBI is a large part of the DOJ’s budget and if it goes to the DPS, it will be a very small part of the overall departmental budget,” he said. “One of the concerns is that it will not get the resources it needs in order to assist the sheriffs and chiefs of police throughout the state.”
The Senate’s proposal to move the SBI saves the state $1 million, while the House’s saves closer to $750,000.
Caldwell said the SBI would likely have to cut jobs to save that much money.