Sunset 101

Sunset 101

150 150 Jim Murphy

As we get into the more major issues facing Texas, we will soon start to see “Sunset Bills.” These are unique in scope, content and process. And their impact can range from minimal to the complete elimination of an agency so they really command attention.

Each session a number of state agencies undergo review by the Sunset Advisory Commission. This begins long before session and is an aspect of government reform that is not very common in other states. The basic premise is to ask a series of questions about the specific agency. These include the question that gives rise to the name of the Commission, “Should this agency continue to exist?” (Or ride off into the sunset?) And if it did so, “What changes might be advisable to its structure, authority, staffing and funding?” The scope is universal. Each program, function, income stream, power, and relationship of an agency is fair game.

It is easy to continue momentum and keep repeating the same process with the same results. But we in Texas like to question our government. The Sunset process was developed in 1977 to regularly review each State agency, approximately every 12 years. Agencies have been eliminated and changed as a result. Perhaps more importantly, the review has produced many new efficiencies, forced us to modernize, and given lawmakers and the public a much deeper knowledge of the workings of our government. And with almost 35 years of reviews, we have become progressively better at the process.

The Speaker and Lieutenant Governor each appoint five members and one public member. The current members are Senators Gen Hegar(Chair), Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Joan Huffman, Robert Nichols, and John Whitmire. House members include Dennis Bonnen (Vice Chair), Rafael Anchia, Byron Cook, Linda Harper Brown, and Larry Taylor. The public members are Charles McMahen and Lamont Jefferson.

As each session wraps up, different agencies are selected — some since it is their cycle, others because there are reasons for an earlier review. Supported by the staffers, the Commission members conduct research, hold hearings around the state, meet with stakeholders and agency staff members, and gather public input. They then prepare reports with their findings and recommendation to the legislature prior to the next session.

This session, we have the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Insurance added to the list for review since these bills were killed last session (a story for another day). Another twenty five agencies are under review now including Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Public Utility Commission, Railroad Commission, and Workers Compensation.

Bills are developed with most of the Commission recommendations and they start through the same process as other bills. These are usually drafted by the Committee Chair (Transportation for example would write the TXDOT Sunset Bill) although Sunset Commission members are often involved as well. So the bills are large, wide in scope, and followed closely.

Now for the “inside baseball” angle that drives my wife, Kathleen crazy but if you have read this far, you’re ready.

We have a germaneness rule in the House. Unlike other legislative bodies, amendments to a bill must relate to some aspect of a bill. This prevents the including of unrelated matters in bills that just makes people shake their heads. However, this rule does not apply to a sunset bill. Since its scope is so broad, almost any amendment can find a home. As a result, members with bills that are hung up or not moving, can put them into the sunset bill as amendments provided a majority of members agree. So these bills are aptly described as “Christmas trees”, since just about anybody can hang something on it.

Not all this is a bad idea. Members still need a majority House vote and Senate agreement. But the fact that it is the one exception to the rule makes members really take notice. And with twenty seven opportunities occurring this session, Christmas might be coming early this year.

You can learn more about the Sunset Advisory Commission by visiting www.sunset.state.tx.us.