A View of the Sunset
This week's debate on the PUC shows why the sunset process continues to shine light on good government.
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The 83rd Lege has started to hear this session’s “sunset” bills. The first to come to the House floor, on Wednesday, concerned the Public Utility Commission. It passed, but as Paul Burka explained on BurkaBlog, there was a bit of a scrap on the floor:
Every now and then, the House of Representatives finds itself involved in a battle that no one expected and is of absolutely no consequence. Such a battle occurred yesterday…
Sunset bills have been included in every legislative session since the Texas Sunset Commission was created in 1977. The idea was that every state agency should be subject to occasional external reviews, adjusted as necessary, and reauthorized only if the agency as a whole continues to serve a purpose. Under the terms of the process, agencies that aren’t actively reauthorized are abolished by default. In practice, agencies are generally tweaked rather than sunsetted outright, but the fact that they have to be explicitly reauthorized means that every state agency gets a close look once every twelve years. The result is that all the reforms that might not make it through the regular session—the useful ideas that get lost in the shuffle or quietly killed by lobbyists—get a second chance.
The value of the exercise was clear by 1993, when there was so much controversy over the Texas sunset process that Texas Monthly was moved to publish a whole story about it. Sunset legislation, explained Burka in that piece, “is like an express train”:
It can’t be sidetracked or derailed in committee; it can’t be delayed to death; it can’t be voted down or vetoed without throwing the government into chaos. (As bad as the Alcoholic Beverage Commission is, not having any regulation would be worse.) A sunset bill is certain to be debated and voted on, fairly and openly. During that debate, legislators can offer amendments that must be debated and voted on, fairly and openly. Sunset opens up the legislative process to ideas that otherwise might never see the light of day.
Leaders from both parties—1993 fell during that brief window when Texas had a two-party government—had plenty of problems with this system. Preparing for the review was time-consuming for the agencies in question, for one thing, and every time an agency came up for sunset review, it was basically guaranteed that the lobbyists would be out in force, trying to change things according to their own preferences. Some of those objections were true, Burka argued, but they were also kind of the point: if the capitol is crawling with special interest groups anyway, for example, why not ask them to lobby the whole House once in a while, rather than just the committees of interest?
That brings us back to this week’s PUC debate. The relevant bill was filed by Byron Cook, a Republican from Corsicana, and included a few tinkers to the PUC’s mandate. One—which had been recommended by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the commission that reviews the agencies—was that the PUC should have emergency “cease and desist” powers over Texas’s various utilities, in the event that one of them was disrupting the market at a critical moment. The Texas Public Policy Foundation didn’t like this recommendation. Neither did Michael Quinn Sullivan of the Empower Texans PAC. That’s what triggered the fight Wednesday. Back to BurkaBlog:
Proclaimed Mr. Sullivan: “ This is overreach at its worst.” Yes, it was – and mainly by Mr. Sullivan.
Sullivan’s article threw the Republican caucus into a tizzy. A huge cluster of Republicans formed at the front of the chamber. Democrats looked on in amusement.
In the end, 33 Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for the bill, which is why Burka described the battle as inconsequential. And perhaps this is the kind of dustup that critics of the sunset process might point to in future debates: as Burka noted in the 1993 article, one of their longstanding complaints has been that the sunset process makes room for bad ideas as well as good.
But as Wednesday’s events showed, just because an idea is aired doesn’t mean it will succeed. In this case, for example, Sullivan’s campaign was a flop; if anything, it was a measure of an activist’s weakening influence in the Lege. There may have been no practical consequences to the debate over the PUC sunset bill, but the debate was illuminating nonetheless.