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November 30. 2012 7:53PM

Attorney General: Right-to-know requests keeping lawyers from other legal services

CONCORD - Responding to mushrooming right-to-know requests is preventing Justice Department attorneys from performing other legal services, Attorney General Michael Delaney told budget writers Friday.

For fiscal year 2010-11, his agency spent 3,983 hours responding to right-to-know requests for his agency at a cost of $362,386, Delaney said. "It's a great thing for citizen. We need to be open and transparent, but there is a significant cost to it."

Delaney appeared before the Governor's Fiscal Year 2014-15 Operating Budget Hearing Friday and said while the state's public information law allows broad access to public records, there is a cost for that broad access.

Delaney said his agency cannot recoup the full costs of responding to the requests and suggested the state consider making more information available through technology that would eliminate citizen needs to make requests and his agency's time and expense to produce the information.

He noted when former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte ran for U.S. Senate, his office had to go through her emails one by one to respond to one right-to-know request, and alluded to other similar requests.

"We need to make this information available to the public, but the cost to produce government records about actions taken in the past is materially undermining our ability to perform current functions," Delaney said. "We need to have a serious discussion about funding options or alternative ways to allocate these costs."

Delaney asked state budget writers for a 17.6 percent increase in his budget funded through state tax dollars. In the current biennium, the department received $16.1 million, and Delaney requested $18.91 million for the next two-year cycle.

He noted during this biennium, his agency has produced $160 million in revenue through national lawsuits such as the mortgage foreclosure settlement with five large national banks.

"We've demonstrated we are a good investment," Delaney said. "We defy the model that legal services are a cost center and not a revenue center."

Delaney also noted while his agency has lost 15 attorneys through budget reductions, other state agencies are adding lawyers.

"In my opinion, this trend toward the decentralized provision of legal services is not consistent with sound public policy," he said. "It leads to the state taking inconsistent legal positions, a disjointed development of the law, and significant inefficiencies."

After the hearings concluded, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said this upcoming budget will be as difficult to balance as the current budget, noting state agencies asked for more than taxpayers could afford.

"Honest revenue estimates, responsible spending, and low taxes are the keys to a balanced budget that will help our economy and avoid the mistakes of the past," Morse said.

Overall, state agencies and institutions have asked for an additional $691 million in spending to be funded by state tax dollars for the next two fiscal years, a 26 percent increase.

The total request - including federal and other funds - is an additional $11.9 billion in spending, or 19 percent.

Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan said Monday the departments' requests are unrealistic given the state's fragile economy and slow growing revenue stream.

"Gov.-elect Hassan has met with many of the state agencies, and she struck the right tone earlier this week when she instructed them to pare back their requests," Morse said. "The ball is now in her court, and we look forward to reviewing her proposed budget."

The hearings are the first of many steps before the state's two-year operating budget is finalized in June.

grayno@unionleader.com

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