Sunday, October 04, 2009

Dewhurst will appoint new chairman to TxDOT's Sunset Advisory Commission

Isett's chair to be filled

Sunset panel to have new chief


By Enrique Rangel
Amarillo Globe-News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN - Soon, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presiding officer of the Texas Senate, will appoint a new chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission to follow Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock.

The powerful legislative panel evaluates about two dozen state agencies every two years and recommends to the Legislature reforming or closing those agencies.

For Isett, who led the 12-member commission for two years, it was a time to take on some powerful agencies targeted for reform.

"If there was something I brought to the process, it was a willingness to take on some agencies that had entrenched cultures," the Lubbock Republican said. "I came to the Legislature to be an agent of reform, and this is the best vehicle to do it."

And among the 27 agencies the commission reviewed in this two-year cycle, none was in more need of reform than the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Insurance, Isett and other legislators said.

TxDOT has been under fire for several years because it is perceived as favoring toll roads, which many Texans oppose, and for a $1 billion accounting error the agency reported last year. In addition, when the Legislature was in session earlier this year, some lawmakers accused the agency of allocating the money it received from the federal stimulus package without telling the Legislature.

And state lawmakers want to reform the Department of Insurance because many Texans complain that they pay the highest home insurance rates in the nation.

But reforming both agencies has not been easy. In the session this year, Isett and Reps. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, authored House Bill 300, which would have reformed TxDOT. But the proposed legislation was killed the last day of the session because the House and the Senate could not agree on allowing cities and counties to raise gasoline taxes to pay for local transportation projects.

There also was a bill that would have reformed the Department of Insurance, but it was among hundreds killed during five days of chubbing, a delay tactic House Democrats used in the waning days to derail a contentious voter identification bill.

Isett said he was disappointed the two bills didn't make it this year, but the work was not wasted, because the Legislature is expected to take up the proposed reforms in the next session.

"I would say that the two bills consumed about 60 percent of my time. But the process of reforming an agency and changing its culture takes time," he said.

Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, agreed.

"The work we put into the TxDOT bill will be of great help when we are back in session in 2011," Pickett said. "We'll get off to a good start."

William Lutz, managing editor of the Lone Star Report, which specializes on legislative issues, said all things considered, under Isett, the Sunset Commission accomplished quite a bit.

"In every session, there are one or two Sunset bills that don't make it, particularly when you are dealing with difficult or sticky issues," Lutz said. "The Sunset Commission did pass the vast majority of Sunset bills that were proposed, and a lot of those brought major changes to our state agencies."

Isett said there is some unfinished business to take care of. In 2011, the Sunset Commission will evaluate agencies including the Public Utility Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Isett wants to keep hammering what he sees as shortcomings in the reform process. The last day of the session, he delivered a speech on the House floor criticizing the Legislature for not focusing enough on the Sunset process.

"I really would ask you to consider if it's not time to sunset the Sunset process," he told his House colleagues, the first chairman to openly criticize the review mechanisms and the legislative process.

"I believe that the system has been adulterated" because, in recent years, Sunset bills have become "targets of opportunity" for people with narrow agendas, Isett elaborated after the speech.

The Legislature created the Sunset Commission in 1977 to make state agencies more efficient and get rid of those that the panel says no longer are serving the public. This year, for example, the Legislature voted to dismantle the Residential Construction Commission because it was perceived as favoring the construction industry over consumers.

© 2009 Amarillo Globe-News:

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