AUSTIN, Texas — As part of the preparation for the 84th Legislative Session, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, a twelve-member legislative commission that reviews Texas agencies for waste, duplication, and inefficiency, began its first round of public hearings on Wednesday, to continue through Thursday. Approximately 130 agencies are subject to Sunset Commission review, generally every twelve years, although the Legislature can change an agency’s Sunset date to a longer or shorter time. About 20 to 30 agencies go through this review every two years. Agencies subject to Sunset review face expiration if they do not receive legislative reauthorization at the end of their review period.
This reversal of the traditional government budgeting process — instead of an agency’s current budget being used as the baseline for calculating the future budget, the agency has to convince lawmakers that they should be allowed to continue to exist at all — is viewed as adding an additional layer of accountability and fiscal restraint to the budgeting process. According to the Sunset Commission, since they were launched in 1977, 37 agencies have been completely abolished and an additional 42 were abolished and certain functions transferred to other existing or newly created agencies. This has saved Texas taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. A fiscal review of the Sunset Commission from 1982 to 2013 showed that their work had saved approximately $945.6 million, and their operational expenses had totaled about $37.2 million, resulting in a return of about $25 for every dollar spent by the Sunset Commission.
The Sunset review process involves extensive research and analysis, as well as incorporating public input at several different points. Sunset Commission Staff compile reports to assist the Commissioners in their review, and these reports are published on their website. After the staff reports are posted, the Sunset Commission conducts hearings in two stages: first, to take testimony from staff and the agency up for review, and second, to deliberate and vote on what their recommendation to the Legislature will be. All recommendations are considered by the full Legislature and voted on during the Legislative Session, then sent to the Governor to be signed or vetoed, just like any other bill.
Texas agencies are active participants in the review process, and preparing for the review process and justifying their activities becomes part of the agency’s culture. Recommendations from staff reports and the results of Sunset reviews for other agencies provide guidelines to help agencies stay focused on accomplishing their stated objectives in as efficient a manner as possible. As one representative from the Texas Health Services Authority told the Commission on Wednesday, “It was great to have a new impartial set of eyes review what we are doing.”
This week’s hearings will include testimony from select agencies on Wednesday, followed by public testimony on Thursday. Agencies up for consideration include the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, the Texas Health Services Authority, the Health and Human Services Commission, and the Texas Education Agency (includes State Board for Educator Certification).
The review for the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is expected to be one of the more extensive, as it is the first Sunset review since HB 2292 passed in 2003 and established the agency in its current form. In light of the recent Ebola crisis as well as the ongoing health needs of Texas’ growing population, managing HHSC’s duties in an efficient and productive manner is especially critical. Among the major concerns voiced by staff at Wednesday’s hearing included the fragmentation of health services duties among different agencies and accountability challenges. Actually abolishing HHSC seems highly unlikely, but sweeping changes have been recommended.
All hearings by the Sunset Commission are open to the public and livestreamed online on the Senate Live Broadcasts website.
Photo credit: Creative Commons licensed image via Wikipedia
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.