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Analysis: Texas Lawmaker Says Sunset Process Has Lost Some of Its Glow

If state Rep. Larry Phillips gets his way, the Sunset Advisory Commission could be up for the sort of operational review it's used to dishing out to other state agencies — forcing the agency to justify its existence.

Chairman State Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, sponsor of HB 910 open carry legislation, just before final passage of the bill April 17, 2015 by a 96-35 House vote.

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Larry Phillips doesn’t necessarily want to kill the Legislature’s periodic examinations of state agencies, but he would like to give the government’s reviewers a taste of their own medicine.

That medicine can be fatal — at least in theory. Agencies that don’t get a legislative pass after a review by the Sunset Advisory Commission automatically go out of business.

That nearly never happens, but the commission itself could be an interesting target. Phillips, a Republican state representative from Sherman, filed legislation forcing a review last year, but it didn’t get any traction. He says he’ll be back for more in 2017, hoping to interrupt the swarm of lobbyists and lawmakers who have fouled up what was supposed to be an exercise in good government.

“I’m all for sunset,” Phillips said Tuesday. “But you’ve built up quite an industry around those [bills].”

And if you pair Phillips’ idea with House Speaker Joe Strausrecent criticism of the sunset process, you might have the makings of change.

“It makes me question whether or not it still serves a useful purpose,” Straus said of the Sunset process. “So, let’s give it a try, to try to refocus and instill some discipline, and see how we do.”

By some measures, the work of the Sunset Commission is stellar. Around three-fourths of its recommendations are accepted by lawmakers, for instance. It keeps the executive branch of government on its toes, in some ways, with most of the agencies undergoing reviews every 12 years.

They have to play along because of the sudden-death rule built into the sunset reviews: Unless an agency wins legislative approval for more time, it goes out of business.

That’s a rare result, to be sure. In fact, in the case of some big agencies — the ones that regulate oil and gas, education, and transportation are prominent examples — extensions are common. Agencies like those are attractive subjects for legislators and lobbyists alike, and their reviews become vehicles for other legislation.

Read MoreAnalysis: Texas Legislative Review Process Needs a Review

Everyone with a cockamamie idea about transportation — or even a good idea — tries to hitch a ride on the sunset review of the Texas Department of Transportation. That’s the agency that builds roads, among other things. The last time it was on stage, it attracted amendments that would have allowed local option gasoline taxes and regulated the use of red-light cameras by law enforcement.

Sunset reviews generate thick reports and legislation. They recommend everything from efficiencies in operations to enhanced or diminished duties for the agencies in question. And they open the door to any related — or sometimes, semi-related — proposals.

This year, the commission is reviewing a couple of dozen state agencies that included what a lawyer might call attractive nuisances — the kinds of subject areas most tempting to legislators and interest groups. The list includes two perennially sticky treats, in TxDOT and the Railroad Commission. The first is a target for everyone from vendors to legislators who want particular work done in their districts, the second a regulator often caught in the gravitational pull of the oil and gas industry it regulates.

Their most recent reviews haven’t gone well. Transportation was up in 2009 and again in 2011. It survived because lawmakers agreed to come back and try again after full review legislation failed. Railroad was up in 2011 and again in 2013. It, too, was caught in the legislative crossfire and will be back on stage in 2017.

They’re not alone: Four river authorities are on the line, along with 14 medical industry regulators, a couple of agencies that regulate lawyers and the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

Some of those will sail through; don’t forget that oft-cited 75 percent success rate. But others are in for a fight.

Straus has already said he wants to try to limit the lawmaker/lobby urge to meddle with the bills and take them to places their authors never intended to go.

Phillips plans to be ready with his plan to put legislators, a couple of state agency executives and perhaps the lieutenant governor and the speaker on a temporary panel that would review the commission itself and recommend whether it should remain as it is now, be remodeled or torn down.

If that goes through, it would mean another report and a new piece of legislation, this time on the sunset process itself.

Wonder what legislators and lobbyists could attach to that one.

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State government Joe Straus Larry Phillips Texas Legislature