"Land of the Lost"
By CHRISTY HOPPE
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday that he will huddle with lawyers and agency administrators and hammer out a way to salvage five state agencies – including the Transportation and Insurance departments – that were terminated by legislative inaction.
Rick Perry quipped about the meltdown: 'I thought I was watching an episode of Lost.' Legislative inaction snuffed out five agencies, including the Transportation Department.
While calling lawmakers to Austin for a special session is always an option, he said, there could be other ways to save the agencies, which the House and Senate couldn't agree on before their 2009 regular session ended Monday night.
Perry pledged that Texans would see no change in the government regulation of their roads and insurance policies.
"I want to ensure our citizens and the employees of those agencies that Texas will continue to build and maintain our roads, regulate the insurance industry and provide essential services while we work with those agency leaders in the coming days to chose the best of many options that are out in front of us," Perry said.
Under the state's sunset statute, the five agencies will cease to exist on Sept. 1, 2010.
More pressing is that they are required to start preparations to go out of business in September of this year. The clock has begun ticking.
House Speaker Joe Straus said there will be options to solve the problem. "I don't consider this a crisis," he said.
The governor was left to deal with the issue when some senators became irritated with the House for refusing to suspend its rules to take up last-minute, but important, business in the waning hours of the legislative session.
When the House, through imaginative rule-making, decided to reconstitute the agencies with a resolution instead of a law, Senate Republicans balked. In an angry partisan split, GOP senators pushed for the chamber to adjourn without considering the House resolution.
Perry, who thought the matter was settled, said he was surprised to see what the Senate had done.
"If I could tell you that I understood what happened last night, I would be an absolute genius," Perry said. "I thought I was watching an episode of Lost. I have no idea what they were thinking or why they did not want to pass that resolution that would give a safety net to those agencies."
The Texas Department of Insurance, the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, the Department of Transportation, the Racing Commission and the Texas State Affordable Housing Corp. were up for "sunset review," the process by which agencies are scrubbed every 12 years. Lawmakers must pass bills reconstituting the agencies to keep them operating.
The governor said that despite some senators' assurances, he can't keep the agencies running through an executive order. So he is faced with the possibility of calling a fractious special session when he would rather be touting accomplishments and preparing for a tough primary battle against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Perry has sole power over calling a special session and deciding what policy areas lawmakers can tackle. So if he calls a special session, he could throw in voter identification into the mix. Virulent Democratic opposition to that proposal is what pushed all the other legislation past the deadline.
Looking for solution
"I don't think I would ever at this early juncture lay out what I may or may not put into" a special session agenda, Perry said. "I would consider almost anything."
But he promised to find "a solution to keep government going."
"I don't think anybody is dying to come back into Austin and do the work that should have been done during a 140-day session," Perry said. "If we have to come back and address this, that's what we'll do."
Under the law, a "sunsetted" agency is given one year to wind down. The agency retains full regulatory and legal authority during the transition.
"The law does not reduce or limit the powers or authority of the agency during its concluding year," said Insurance Department spokesman Ben Gonzales. "This morning, the commissioner encouraged the staff to remain focused and continue conducting our regular duties while this is sorted out."
Staff writer Terrence Stutz contributed to this report.
© 2009 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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