A state that needs to act to promote its long-term fiscal health should periodically review its existing agencies to see if they make sense or should be eliminated.
A sunset advisory commission is one way to do accomplish that task. The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission offers a model and some history. It reviews each program on a 12-year cycle, looking at roughly 150 programs and holding public hearings. Here’s one description of the commission’s mission: “While standard legislative oversight is concerned with agency compliance with legislative policies, Sunset asks a more basic question: Do the agency’s functions continue to be needed?”
After its review of an agency, the commission sends its recommendations to the Legislature. Sometimes it can even call for the abolition of an agency, though agencies required by the constitution are immune from this possibility. If the commission can and does call for an agency’s abolition, the agency is abolished–unless the Legislature votes to overturn the recommendation. In other words, the Legislature must go on record in favor of continuing the agency–rather than let it continue on autopilot.
The commission was created in 1977, so it’s certainly not a fly-by-night idea. Since then, Texas has abolished 58 agencies and consolidated another 12, for a savings to the taxpayer of $783 million. The commission’s expenses have been $29 million over that time, resulting in a healthy “return” of $27 for every dollar “invested” in the commission. Granted, $783 million is small change for Texas, and at least one legislator has called for sunsetting the sunset commission. Still, there are some intangible benefits of having a periodic review of government, and of course a sunset commission is simply one practice that might contribute to good government.
There’s been some action to enact some sort of sunset commission here in Minnesota. Three bills sponsored in this last legislative session would create a sunset commission, but got stuck in committee. Rumor has it that some sunset committee-provision has been on the table during negotiations on preparing for a special session.