The last day of the 2019 session arrived and the legislature had failed to renew a state agency — the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners (TSBPE) — and it was set to expire later that year, per the sunset review process. An effort to transfer it into the Department of Licensing and Regulation failed and it there was no corresponding safety net legislation.
Citing health and safety concerns, plumbers across the state sounded the alarm. One Austin plumbing instructor told The Texan at the time, “These licenses and codes were a response to some tragedy in our history that affected an individual or group and resulted in sickness or death.”
Others, like the Institute for Justice’s Arif Panju, saw it as an opportunity to reduce regulatory barriers to entry.
“By relying on less-restrictive regulatory alternatives like permitting and inspections at the local level, and less-restrictive voluntary alternatives such as private certification, the state will be well-positioned to address the shortage of plumbing professionals that has long plagued our state,” he stated.
On Monday, the House’s first sunset bill passed was the TSBPE’s extension. Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) managed to successfully amend the legislation to permit individuals who complete a “career and technology education program” to qualify for the licensing process.
It further requires the TSBPE to work with the Texas Education Agency on carrying out that transitional program and prohibits the board from compelling the licensee to pay a fee or register as an apprentice before application.
The bill was followed by the same legislation for the Teacher’s Retirement System of Texas and the “Sunset Safety Net” bill — which extends the expiration date of 20 entities from 2021 to 2023 in case the legislature fails to renew them during the session.
Critics of the safety net legislation say it defeats the purpose of the sunset process: forcing the legislature to approve and prioritize only what is necessary and efficient. Proponents say it prevents an agency’s unintended expiration whence the legislature abrogates its duty or, for whatever reason, fumbles an intended renewal — like in the TBSPE instance.
On the Texas House floor Tuesday, safety net bill author Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) was asked by Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) about just that: why the legislation is needed.
“This is a bill we pass every year that we’re here in the legislature to ensure that if for some reason this body, or the corresponding body across the hall, fails to pass [the sunset legislation],” Canales responded, “that agency isn’t abolished by accident or by failure of us to do our job.”
Slaton’s hang-up was centered on the possibility that a bill could fail to go through the necessary committee hearings and public testimony and the agency would still be effectively renewed.
“I feel like it’s going to be putting these unelected bureaucrat agencies on autopilot and I’ll be voting ‘No,’” Slaton concluded.
Every odd year, the Texas legislature is tasked with evaluating the efficacy of the state agencies it has authorized. This is called the sunset review process and is overseen by the Sunset Advisory Commission (SAC) which is made up of 12 legislators, half from the House and half from the Senate.
The process was established in 1977 and 41 agencies or programs have been abolished entirely through it since its inception. In total, 131 agencies are subject to the sunset review.
Sunset reviews, the SAC website states, promote “a culture of continuous improvement in state government by providing an objective, nonpartisan public forum for evaluating the need for state agencies and their effectiveness, efficiency, and responsiveness to the public.”
The SAC further touts $1 billion in savings over its lifetime. During the 2019 session, the SAC states that 68 types of licenses were eliminated, over 20 “unnecessary licensing barriers” were removed, and a handful of consolidations of agencies or boards were approved.
The process begins with evaluations by SAC staff who then make recommendations to lawmakers about what changes or revisions to make. Since 2001, the SAC states that 80 percent of its recommendations have become law.
Public hearings are then conducted by the SAC during which agencies give their pitch regarding the recommendations and public testimony is heard. From there, bills are drafted for each agency and the typical legislative process begins.
Per state code, upon expiry, an agency may continue its operation until September 1 of the following year to “conclude its business.”
According to the SAC, the last six instances of state entity abolishment through the sunset review process are:
- Texas Residential Construction Commission, 2009
- Texas-Israel Exchange Fund Board, 2009
- Electronic Government Program Management Office of the Department of Information Resources, 2011
- Equine Research Account Advisory Committee, 2011
- Interagency Task Force for Children With Special Needs, 2015
- Central Colorado River Authority, 2017
While having used the process to abolish some entities in the last decade, the legislature mostly opts for revisions of existing ones. The SAC did not have immediately available the last statewide department that was sunset. Due to the plumbers’ board fracas bookending the last session, the legislature was sure not to repeat the same error this year.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.