Sunset the notion of sunset review

Oh, dear.  Sunset review is back again:  another great idea that may not work so well in New Mexico.

Sunset review is legislative code language for kicking the can down the road.       If it worked, we would not today have the proliferation of boards and commissions that some folks consider irrelevant and excessive.   They would have been sunsetted — that is, closed — in prior legislative sessions.

In sunset review, a provision is inserted in a statute that says an agency or board is terminated effective on a certain date several years in advance.  In effect, the legislature is forcing itself to review those entities before the termination date and decide whether they deserve to be reauthorized.

That’s like saying, “We don’t have time this year, but we’ll make time in that other future year.”  Right.  Like they’re going to have less work in 2017 than they have now.

I was alerted to the proliferation of sunsets this year when I looked at House Bill 29, a product of the Restructuring Task Force, which proposes to consolidate several agencies into a new Department of Commerce.  The bill terminates various agencies and commissions on various dates.  (I have referred to this bill elsewhere in connection with the Small Business Regulatory Relief Act, which would terminate immediately).

Section 85 of this bill proposes to terminate the Workers’ Compensation Administration in 2017.  Just a second! The state constitution makes the WCA the exclusive court of jurisdiction for workers’ compensation disputes.  If the agency closed, workers’ comp disputes would have nowhere to go.  I’ve heard that’s not the only constitutional problem with this bill.

Some years ago, the Sunset Review Committee was an interim subcommittee of the Legislative Finance Committee.  Routinely, a legislator friend told me, the committee chair was the only legislator who showed up to the hearings — and approved reauthorization of everything.   The LFC rubber-stamped the subcommittee approval and then the full legislature rubber-stamped again.   One notable exception in the early 1990s was a serious fight about the Construction Industries Division.

The underlying problem is simply the legislative workload.  With our volunteer legislature and a minimal year-round legislative staff, there is not enough time for the necessary reviewing.  There is always greater pressure to direct legislators’ attention to new problems, and there are always plenty of those.

So legislators just have to kick the can.  For example, House Bill 234, sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Wallace, proposes to extend the sunset date for the Animal Sheltering Board from this year to 2017.  I don’t know what the Animal Sheltering Board does, but if it protects animals in shelters, I’m for extending it.

If we were to change the state constitution and lengthen the legislative sessions, or switch to a paid professional legislature, I believe we would not be better off.  The legislative workload would expand to fill the new opportunity, and legislators would be just as overloaded as they are today.

For comparison, look at the U. S. Congress.  They didn’t get around to passing a budget for the current year, and the federal government is operating on a “continuing resolution,”which means, just reauthorize whatever we said last year.

Here’s an idea:  maybe the state should create a sunset review commission, separate from the Legislature, to conduct the serious sunset reviews during the legislative interim and make recommendations to the Legislature on which agencies to keep and which to scrap.  Oh, dear.  Then we would just have one more commission, wouldn’t we?

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Rep. Jeannette Wallace passed away a few months after this column was published.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2011

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