Members of the Sunset Advisory Commission were obliged to defend the commission’s role supervising state agencies Thursday morning at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference in Austin—although the defense may not have been necessary. The panel, “Should Texas Sunset the Sunset Commission?” asked an apparently pressing question on the minds at TPPF, but hardly anybody else’s.
None of the four panelists—all members of the Sunset Commission—directly answered the question posed. Although state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Friendswood), the Commission’s chairman, did mention at the very start of the panel that the answer is “rather simplistic.” Bonnen led with a fiscal defense of the commission’s work: “I can’t justify to someone who wants to create savings for the taxpayers in Texas a reason to eliminate an entity that helps create $161 million in revenue [per year].” But, Bonnen added, there’s always room for improvement—the Commission’s unofficial motto.
The Sunset Advisory Commission is made up of ten appointed legislators, five from the House and five from the Senate, and two members of the general public. Since 1977, the Commission has been responsible for eliminating inefficiency in Texas government by treating most state agencies to a review—no gratuitous task, especially with agencies like the Commission on Jail Standards which, let’s say, have room for improvement. Every 12 years five or six state agencies reach their state-mandated expiration date and fall under review to be either decommissioned entirely, or kept alive usually as long as they make a few changes suggested by the Sunset Commission through filed legislative bills that have to be approved for the agency to continue—known as “must-pass” bills. The Railroad Commission, Public Utility Commission and the Texas Education Agency are just a few of the agencies up for review this session.
Fittingly, the Sunset Commission even reviews its own effectiveness every session before pointing any fingers at other state agencies.
So the real question on the panel should have been: Why did TPPF float the idea of scrapping the commission entirely? A recent editorial published in the Houston Chronicle and the TPPF website by the panel’s moderator Bill Peacock, sheds some light on how TPPF framed the question. Peacock, director of TPPF’s Center for Economic Freedom, is a champion of small government and free market principles, and in his editorial accused the sunset process of “unwarranted attempts to grow government.”
Peacock said the problem could be solved by “eliminating the ‘must-pass’ nature of sunset bills. Agencies would not be ‘sunsetted’ but would still undergo review, and if the sunset recommendations are worthwhile and can garner broad support, the bill will pass. If not, it won’t,” he wrote.
Those must-pass bills are a product of the entire legislative process, not the Sunset Commission, said Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas). “There’s no crisis in the sunset process,” he said. But he did “lament” that there are problems with the legislative process. “We do not write good law on the House floor,” Anchia said. The problem, he said, is that sunset bills are “so broad” that legislators who aren’t on the commission, suddenly introduce measures that haven’t been thoroughly vetted by either chamber as a policy proposal in a sunset bill. In the face of this “onslaught of amendments,” there’s not much commission members can do. “I have found some of the worst policy that we have made gets put on a sunset bill,” he said.
“I think sunset is a very necessary function, and it is necessary because the needs of Texas change over time,” he said. “The values of community also change over time and those social values need to be reflected in administrative agencies and how they approach the public.”