For all of the flack that the state of Texas receives for having a few, shall we say, ultraconservative citizens, the state has a history of developing innovative policy solutions. One of these solutions is the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission (Sunset Commission), an agency that reviews the operations of state agencies. The Sunset Commission is comprised of five members of the state House, five from the Senate and two from the general public and reviews almost all state agencies once every 12 years. Reviews are conducted in public and then recommendations are provided to the state legislature. The commission can recommend one of four outcomes:
- The agency continues as-is
- The agency continues, but with modifications
- The agency is merged with another agency
- The agency is abolished and its core functions moved to another agency.
Commission recommendations are non-binding --- the legislature may do what it wishes --- but the public nature of the process makes it politically difficult for legislators to override the recommendations.
This is one of many of the elegant policy constructs that make the Sunset Commission an exemplary idea that is well executed. The first, and most important, aspect of the law is to understand that the “default” choice (i.e. what will happen if no action is taken) is that the agency disappears, unless legislators proactively insert it into the state budget. In other words, agencies are not assumed to continue in perpetuity, but rather ended after 12 years.
Second, the 12 “Sunset Review Questions” that drive the process reflect an amalgam of interests from across the political spectrum, a few are:
- How successful has the agency been at meeting its mission, goals and objectives?
- Does the agency perform any duties that are not statutorily authorized?
- In what ways could the agency’s functions/operations be less burdensome or restrictive and still adequately protect and serve the public?
- To what extent does the agency encourage and use public participation when making rules and decisions?
- Has the agency complied with state and federal requirements regarding equal opportunity employment?
- Would abolishing the agency cause federal government intervention or loss of federal funds?
Addressing these (and other) specific policy issues, combined with the mandate that Sunset findings are made public, ensures that each state agency knows how it will be judged and the Sunset Commissioners, state legislators, state agencies, media and citizens are all clear regarding the metrics by which the agency will be evaluated. This limits the ability of all sides to use political chicanery to drive the process.
The results of the law are clear, specifically a return on investment of 3000% (the Sunset Commission has received $24.9 million in taxpayer funding over 25 years and saved $784.5 million over that time period). It has reviewed 316 agencies and recommended:
- Abolishing 33 agencies outright
- Abolishing the agency but moving core functions elsewhere in 21 cases
- Consolidating agencies in other departments 12 times
- Creating a new agency (by splitting one agency into two), twice
This shows that the Sunset Commission is not packed with rabid conservatives, hell bent on destroying all government, but rather a broad range of citizens focused on ensuring that government is both effective and efficient. The Sunset Commission’s recommendations are not binding (i.e. not superseding the legislature), but the legislature rarely acts contrary to the recommendations, as doing so would both reject a bipartisan recommendation while simultaneously spending more money --- on an agency that was deemed inefficient or irrelevant. How many politicians would stand up and fight for money for an agency deemed inefficient or duplicative? Most importantly, as someone who believes that what gets measured is what is managed, by laying out the 12 criteria for evaluation, the Sunset Commission has saved untold billions in spending on agency activities that are irrelevant while also pre-empting agency mission creep. As someone who respects the proper role of the legislature in society, but also wants efficient and transparent government, this is an extremely elegant solution to addressing inefficiency in the context of an interest group-laden political process --- a solution Washington should replicate.
On a personal note, I can say that I have personal experience with the Sunset Commission and found their process to be fair, accurate and insightful. As a graduate student I was tasked with a consulting project for a small Texas agency --- the agency was selected to be reviewed in the next Sunset cycle, ahead of schedule. (One of the facets of the law is that if legislators feel as though an agency is not performing, they can fast track a Sunset proceeding). After a few short months it became clear that the agency defined “government boondoggle” and my teammates and I were outraged to know that government was spending our tax dollars so inefficiently. In fact, it is my understanding that our class project was used by executives to justify their continued existence. Luckily, the Sunset Commission’s investigation found what our group found: http://www.sunset.state.tx.us/78threports/tac/summary.pdf
To learn more about the Sunset Process: http://www.sunset.state.tx.us/guide.pdf
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