What is Sunset?
Sunset is the regular assessment of the continuing need for a state agency to exist. 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?” The Sunset process works by setting a date on which an agency will be abolished unless legislation is passed to continue its functions. This creates a unique opportunity for the Legislature to look closely at each agency and make fundamental changes to an agency’s mission or operations if needed.
The Sunset process is guided by a 12-member body appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Assisting the Commission is a staff whose reports provide an assessment of an agency’s programs, giving the Legislature the information needed to draw conclusions about program necessity and workability.
How is an Agency Scheduled for Review Under Sunset?
About 130 state agencies are subject to the Texas Sunset Act. The Sunset Act, which became effective in August 1977, specifies each agency’s review date. Agencies under Sunset typically undergo review once every 12 years. Certain entities, such as universities and courts, are not subject to the Sunset Act. Some constitutionally created agencies, such as the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Board of Trustees of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, are subject to Sunset review but not abolishment.
Generally, the Legislature groups and schedules agencies for review by function to allow the examination of all major state policies related to a particular function at once, such as health and human services, natural resources, and financial regulation. About 20 to 30 agencies go through the Sunset process each legislative session. The Legislature may change the review schedule to enable a close look at certain agencies of special legislative interest.
How are Agencies Reviewed?
Staff of the Sunset Commission works extensively with each agency under review to evaluate the need for the agency, propose needed statutory or management changes, and develop legislation necessary to enact any proposed changes.
A state agency undergoing Sunset review is automatically abolished unless the Legislature passes a bill to continue.
Sunset Review Time Frame
August 2007 – Agencies submit Self-Evaluation Reports.
September 2007 to January 2009 – Sunset staff prepares reports; Sunset Commission holds public hearings and makes decisions.
February 2009 – Report to 81st Legislature on agencies subject to Sunset in 2009.
January 2009 to May 2009 – Legislature considers Sunset Commission recommendations.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is currently under Sunset Review. The following is an excerpt from the “Sunset Advisory Commission Decision Material” on TxDOT released in November 2008 and TxDOT’s response to several of the issues cited.
Control over transportation policy needs to return to the Legislature, where it belongs.
The Sunset review of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) occurred against a backdrop of distrust and frustration with the Department and the demand for more transparency, accountability, and responsiveness. Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was “out of control,” advancing its own agenda against objections of both the Legislature and the public.
Sunset staff found that this atmosphere of distrust permeated most of TxDOT’s actions and determined that it could not be an effective state transportation agency if trust and confidence were not restored. Significant changes are needed to begin this restoration; tweaking the status quo is simply not enough. This report proposes decisive action to address TxDOT’s problems by establishing what is in effect a four-year “legislative conservatorship” to return control over transportation policy to the Legislature, where it belongs. The recommendations in this report would strengthen the Legislature’s position in overseeing the Department and help to restore trust and confidence in TxDOT by requiring the following changes in statute:
Achieve greater accountability under the oversight of a single Commissioner of Transportation;
Enhance the Legislature’s role through a Transportation Legislative Oversight Committee;
Provide better access to independent transportation information and research;
Increase transparency of TxDOT’s transportation planning and project development process;
Improve TxDOT’s public involvement efforts; and
Make the Department’s contracting functions more accountable, particularly its development of comprehensive development agreements.
The short four-year Sunset date would allow the Legislature to consider whether these changes have resulted in a more responsive, accountable, and transparent TxDOT and, if not, what additional changes might be required. These recommendations present an opportunity for more comprehensive discussions and valuable deliberations by the Sunset Commission and the Legislature about the governance, organization, funding, and operations of TxDOT. These discussions should also include information from the other examinations being conducted by the State Auditor, several interim committees, and the Legislative Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Projects.
A summary of Sunset staff recommendations on TxDOT follows as a starting point for these discussions.
Issues and Recommendations
Until Trust in the Texas Department of Transportation Is Restored, the State Cannot Move Forward to Effectively Meet Its Growing Transportation Needs.
Abolish the Texas Transportation Commission and replace it with an appointed Commissioner of Transportation.
Establish a Transportation Legislative Oversight Committee to provide necessary oversight of the Department and the state’s transportation system.
Require the Transportation Legislative Oversight Committee to review and comment on TxDOT’s research program, including individual research projects and activities.
The Sunset Commission should recommend that the Legislature directly fund the Texas Transportation Institute to conduct transportation research previously contracted through TxDOT.
Continue TxDOT for four years.
The State’s Complicated Transportation Planning and Project Development Process Frustrates Understanding of How Important Decisions Are Made.
Require TxDOT to redevelop and regularly update the long-range Statewide Transportation Plan describing total system needs, establishing overarching statewide transportation goals, and measuring progress toward those goals.
Establish a transparent, well-defined, and understandable system of project programming within TxDOT that integrates project milestones, forecasts, and priorities.
Require TxDOT districts to develop detailed work programs driven by milestones for major projects and other statewide goals for smaller projects.
Require TxDOT, with input from transportation partners and policymakers, to develop a system to measure and report on progress in meeting transportation goals and milestones.
Require TxDOT to establish, and provide funding and support for, transportation planning in rural areas of the state.
TxDOT Does Not Meet the High Expectations Placed on it to Ensure Consistent, Meaningful Public Involvement.
Require TxDOT to develop and implement a public involvement policy that guides and encourages more meaningful public involvement efforts agency-wide.
Require TxDOT to develop standard procedures for documenting complaints and for tracking and analyzing complaint data.
TxDOT should provide a formal process for staff with similar responsibilities to share best practices information.
TxDOT should provide central coordination of the Department’s major marketing campaigns.
TxDOT should make its website easier to use.
Elements of TxDOT’s Contracting Functions Lack Efficiency and Could Expose the State to Unacceptable Levels of Risk.
Relax restrictions on TxDOT’s contracting practices by authorizing the use of design-build contracts for traditionally funded highway projects and removing requirements to advertise contract notifications and solicitations in newspapers.
TxDOT should improve the consistency and efficiency of its professional services contracting by setting timeframes for key stages in its contracting process.
Reduce contract risk and improve TxDOT’s contract management by increasing staff overseeing professional services contracts; strengthening oversight and training for professional services contracts; and establishing an external process for reviewing comprehensive development agreements.
Key Elements of TxDOT’s Regulation of Motor Vehicle Dealers, Salvage Vehicle Dealers, and Household Goods Carriers Do Not Conform to Commonly Applied Licensing Practices.
TxDOT needs to provide necessary resources to enforce its statutory provisions regarding salvage vehicle dealers.
Standardize licensing provisions by requiring a surety bond for certain franchise dealers and establishing a process for informing the public whether household goods carriers conduct criminal history checks on their employees.
Update enforcement practices to enable regulation of motor vehicle advertisements and to provide new tools for taking action against motor vehicle dealers and household goods carriers.
Key Elements of TxDOT’s Regulation of Outdoor Advertising Do Not Conform to Commonly Applied Licensing Practices.
Standardize administration of outdoor advertising regulation by requiring an outdoor advertising license for rural roads and depositing all fees to the General Revenue-Dedicated Texas Highway Beautification Account.
Authorize the Department to deny license renewal if a licensee’s permits are in poor standing.
Update enforcement practices by requiring the Department to develop complaints procedures, authorizing the use of standard administrative penalties, and depositing all program fines into the General Revenue-Dedicated Texas Highway Beautification Account.
TxDOT should centralize the program, better track total program costs and raise fees to recover costs, and scale enforcement actions to the seriousness of the offense.
“Undergoing Sunset Review has been a highly productive process for this agency,” said Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT executive director. “The dedicated employees of TxDOT have worked hard