On Supermajority sunsetting state boards, commissions and such

Seventeen state government entities were abolished during the 108th General Assembly, and the chairman of a committee overseeing the “sunset” process says that is part of a Republican supermajority trend that will continue in the 109th General Assembly that begins Jan. 13.

The terminations were in addition to legislative approval of proposals submitted by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration for merging or restructuring some entities.

As a prelude to the new session, joint subcommittees of the House and Senate government operations committees met last week to begin reviewing boards, commissions and other governmental agencies that are subject to termination, renewal or modification during 2015.

State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who chairs the Senate committee, questioned the need for at least two of the entities, including the Consumer Advocate Division of the state attorney general’s office, which has been in existence since 1994 — created after what was described as a scandal — without ever being subject to a legislative review before.

Bell says he would like to bring still more entities under mandated scrutiny of the government operations committees — one example being the drug task forces operated by law enforcement organizations around the state, which he described as “a strange creature” that evolved as part of the District Attorneys General Conference without any legislative oversight.

“I’m always looking for another board or commission to get rid of,” Bell said.

There are currently about 275 state government entities subject to Tennessee’s Sunset Act. Under the law, the boards, commissions, departments, agencies and other entities must periodically be audited by the state Comptroller’s Office, then reviewed by the government operations committees, which make a recommendation to the full House and Senate on whether they should continue in existence.

If the Legislature fails to approve new life for an entity, it will sunset, or cease to exist. In the case of the Consumer Advocate Division, for example, the Legislature last session approved a bill assigning it a sunset date of June 30, 2015, putting the agency in the pipeline for its first review in the coming session.

Bell said there are two basic questions for every entity coming before the panel: First, “Do we need this?” and, second, “Is it fulfilling the function it was created to do?”

“Some of these have run out their usefulness,” he said, citing as a potential example the other entity he questioned last week, the Medical Examiners Advisory Council, which is attached to the state Department of Health.

An audit said the board is effectively inactive. Terms of board members had expired at the time of the audit with no new members appointed.

“The council has not met annually as required by statute and has not fulfilled its statutory duties to prepare an annual report and assist the chief medical examiner in developing and updating guidelines for death investigations,” the audit said.

In such a situation, where the council appears not to be doing anything, Bell said elimination is an obvious possibility. In the case of the Consumer Advocate Division, auditors found no problem with the division performing its duties, and Herbert Slatery, recently appointed by the state Supreme Court to serve as attorney general, appeared before the panel along with the division head, Vance Broemel, to defend its continued existence.

But Bell and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, both questioned the need for the division, noting it was created when the Public Service Commission was in operation with much broader oversight of utilities — including telecommunications companies — than the current Tennessee Regulatory Authority has.

The TRA, an agency that was restructured in accord with Haslam’s wishes two years ago, still oversees natural gas companies and private utilities that provide water, sewer and electric power services without competition. But the telecommunications industry has been generally deregulated, and the agency has no oversight of the rates charged, as did the old PSC in 1994.

Henry Walker, a Nashville attorney specializing in utility regulation cases and former legal counsel to the PSC, told the panel the division was created by the Legislature after a “scandal” wherein it appeared rates were being raised inappropriately. The Government Operations Committee chairman at the time threatened to issue subpoenas and hold hearings, he said, but ultimately went along with a compromise with PSC leaders and industry representatives — setting up the division to ensure consumers would have a voice in the future.

Bell last week proposed a compromise of sorts on termination of the division, which was unanimously approved by the joint subcommittee, giving the division two more years of life with a new sunset date of June 30, 2017. That extension would give Slatery, as a new attorney general, a chance to look into operations in more detail, then come back to the committee with details on whether there is a continuing need for the division, which officials said cost $548,000 to operate last year — less than half spent two years earlier.

Entities terminated in the two years of the 108th General Assembly vary widely, ranging from the state Civil Service Commission to the Tobacco Farmers Certifying Board. The Civil Service Commission heard appeals of state employee firings or other disciplinary action, but it was abolished after approval of a Haslam administration initiative to overhaul the entire system governing state employee hiring and firing. The tobacco board was set up in 1999 to recommend a system for distributing money received in a lawsuit settlement and had completed its work long ago.

Perhaps the most controversial termination was the Judicial Nominating Commission, which was assigned to review applicants for vacant judge positions and nominate three people for appointment by the governor. Haslam subsequently set up a panel to perform the same duties by executive order.

While that arguably enhanced the power of the state’s chief executive, the Legislature has also considered bills that would decrease the governor’s power to appoint boards and commissions. A measure approved last year gives the speakers of the House and Senate the right to appoint a majority of members of the Tennessee Textbook Commission, which previously had members all appointed by the governor.

A bill that failed — although Bell says it might return this year — would have required a majority of state Board of Education members to be appointed by the speakers. All are now appointed by the governor.

Haslam has recommended — and the Legislature has approved — board consolidations that he declared cases of “streamlining state government.” For example, the board that oversees barbers was merged with the board that oversees beauty parlors into the Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners.

A document provided by Government Operations Committee staff indicates about 100 state government entities have been terminated since 2000, or an average of about a dozen in each two-year legislative session. An increase to 17 terminations in the 108th General Assembly then, is not a dramatic increase.

But Bell said it is an indication of increasing legislative oversight as Republican lawmakers seek to improve efficiency in state government and ties into more legislative assertiveness in authority to appoint members of boards and commissions deemed worthy of continued operation.

The legislative branch, he said, is “closest to the people” and deserves the authority.

“It’s just a fact. Legislators are the ones who are out at the grocery stores on the weekends meeting mothers who are shopping and going to the cafes where old men are talking politics and drinking coffee,” he said.

Note: This report, also published in the News Sentinel, expands upon a news release previously posted HERE.

State government entities terminated during the 108th Tennessee General Assembly’s session, covering 2013 and 2014:
Advisory Council on Child Nutrition and Wellness
Civil Service Commission
Conservation Commission
Criminal Justice Coordinating Council
Drycleaner Environmental Response Board
Employee Misclassification Advisory Task Force
Tennessee Alliance for Fitness and Health
Institute for Labor-Management Studies
Judicial Information System Advisory Committee
Judicial Nominating Commission
Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission
Judicial Selection Commission
Pest Control Compact
Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Health
Surplus Lines Insurance Multi-state Compliance Compact
Tennessee Court Information System Steering Committee
Tobacco Farmers Certifying Board